Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin gestures while questioning members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The retiring Levin faces one of his greatest legislative challenges to bridge the gap between White House and Republican foreign policy stances. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — The White House’s veto threat of a House GOP military policy bill highlights the wide foreign policy chasm between America’s two major political parties. And that means retiring Sen. Carl Levin’s final major legislative act as Armed Services Committee chairman may have to be his finest hour.
The Obama administration’s “statement of administration policy” on the House Armed Services Committee’s 2015 National Defense Authorization Act voices opposition to how the panel’s bill could block a number of proposed weapon system cuts. But it also raises objections, in telling language, that underscores Republicans’ and Democrats’ very different views of America’s role in the world.
On Iran, HASC’s bill includes a “sense of Congress” provision stating the US should “maintain a robust forward presence and posture in the Arabian Gulf.” It also expresses a list of conditions the panel believes should be insisted upon by US and international negotiators during talks with Iran about a deal under which the Islamic republic would give up its nuclear arms program, including that Tehran would cease enriching uranium.
“The administration has concerns with the sense of Congress language on Iran … or similar provisions purporting to set conditions on negotiations,” according to the White House statement. “Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the administration toward which it has worked diligently with Congress and our international partners.”
The White House has signaled previously that allowing Iran to enrich uranium below levels needed to produce atomic weapons could be a major carrot to dangle in the ongoing multination negotiations.
“The International Atomic Energy Agency has assessed that under the Joint Plan of Action, Iran has taken specific and verifiable actions that have halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled it back in key respects,” the White House stated.
“The ongoing P5+1 negotiations are the best opportunity to peacefully achieve the goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. By spelling out conditions for a final resolution before the conclusion of the negotiations, the bill undermines that vital effort.”
The White House and the GOP-controlled HASC also clash on policies for dealing with an increasingly aggressive Russia.
For instance, the White House is objecting to HASC-passed language that would slap restrictions on funds the administration is proposing using for longstanding US-Russian nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
Many Armed Services Committee members are calling for a much tougher US stance toward Russia, with some saying the United States might have to lift defense spending caps to ensure its military is ready for a potential clash with Moscow. They also say the US should cut off most government-to-government work until Russia stands down in Ukraine.
But the White House contends current tensions should not block nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
“Nuclear security cooperation with the Russian Federation is in the US national interest. Cooperation with Russia remains an essential element to the global effort to address the threat posed by nuclear terrorism,” states the White House.
“Critical bilateral nuclear nonproliferation activities are continuing in a number of key areas, and nuclear security is of paramount importance.”
The nonproliferation provision also shows the White House and HASC disagree over interpretation of how the US Constitution doles out national security powers.
“The blanket restriction on the use of funds for ‘contact’ or ‘cooperation’ between the United States and the Russian Federation unconstitutionally interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct diplomacy,” states the White House.
The constitutional interpretation difference also is raised at the end of the White House’s statement: “A number of the bill’s provisions raise additional constitutional concerns, including with respect to the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces.”
In another portion of the administration’s statement, it objects to two provisions it says would “infringe on the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.”
The two sides also continue a years-long battle over where the United States should place missile defense systems around the globe.
HASC has again approved language authorizing funds for a US East Coast site. The White House has again objected.
The GOP-run committee wants to speed up an administration plan to place missile defense system components in Poland. The White House says it is not needed.
“Accelerating the deployment of the Aegis Ashore site by two years would impose large costs on, and risk to, other Navy programs and likely would not change Russia’s security calculation in Europe,” the White House wrote.
“Similarly, deploying short-range air and missile defense capability to Poland would limit the ability of the United States to meet its worldwide operational missile defense requirements.”
In short, HASC wants a more muscular foreign and national security policy that is tougher on Iran and Russia than the Obama administration’s existing policies — in fact, an approach that would alter foes’ behavior. The White House continues to make clear it believes there are limits to US strength, especially military-only moves.
It largely will be up to Levin, D-Mich., to craft a bill that can begin to bridge the vast philosophic gap that divides the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Obama White House.
If Levin can accomplish this, it might be some of his finest work over a Senate career that spans three decades. ■