On Jul. 14, 2022, the House passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year (FY) 2023 with a vote of 329-101. President Joe Biden originally requested $802.4 billion for national defense programs with $772.5 billion for the Department of Defense. In its version, the House approved $839.3 billion for national defense, an astounding $71.1 billion more than the amount allocated in the 2022 NDAA and $37 billion more than what Biden requested. The Senate has yet to approve its version of the bill, but the Senate Committee on Armed Services has recommended even more than the House: $857.46 billion in defense spending, with $817.15 billion for the Department of Defense.
These proposals reflect the only position Washington appears to agree on: increasing an already oversized military budget with little to no push back or debate. In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) killed the $2.2 trillion, 10-year Build Back Better plan over fears of inflation and the national debt. Yet, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) griped about the ever-growing Pentagon budget: “Isn’t it strange how even as we end the longest war in our nation’s history, concerns about the deficit and national debt seem to melt away?” According to the most recent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data from 2021, the United States spends more than the next nine countries combined, which include China, India, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea. And recent audits reveal massive government waste in this seismic budget.
While the enormity of the defense spending proposed in the 2023 NDAA remains disappointing, there are a few measures that, if implemented, would be a welcome realignment toward a more humanitarian and restrained US foreign policy instead of simply more of the same.
Restricting US arms sales is one such category. The recent approval of Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia is a reminder that the United States should have stopped enabling Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen years ago. The sad fact remains that as long as the United States supports Riyadh with offensive capabilities, Saudi Arabia will continue to perpetuate its war in Yemen, which is an inhumane intervention with little to no impact on US security interests. The highest priority for the United States should continue to be avoiding entanglement and strategic recklessness when restricting these arms sales. However, disincentivizing rogue allies like Turkey and unhelpful partners like Saudi Arabia, as well as making it harder for them to continue the human rights abuses they perpetrate, would be an added bonus.
The latest version of the NDAA reflects the only position Washington appears to agree on: increasing an already oversized military budget with little to no push back or debate.
The outdated, overly expansive “zombie” military authorizations are another category. Ideally, all three — the 1991, 2001, and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) — would be repealed, requiring a new, specific, limited AUMF for any ongoing counterterrorism missions in the Middle East. However, the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs are especially ineffectual, as neither are used anymore as the sole legal justification. Unsurprisingly, in the 2022 NDAA, Congress left the repeal of the 1991 and 2002 AUMF on the table. Some policymakers have been trying, unsuccessfully, to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF and have introduced more than 20 bills since 2011. But the last time a military authorization was repealed was in 1971 when Congress revoked the US authorization for its involvement in Vietnam.
The chief issue with the 2002 AUMF, and those like it, is that the authorization includes neither a geographic nor temporal constraint, which is why its use has been overextended to justify the continued US missions in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS). By keeping these outdated AUMFs available indefinitely, as Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argues, the United States risks the “danger of a future administration reaching back into the legal dustbin to use it as a justification for military adventurism.” The Iraq and Gulf Wars have long been over. Even if the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs are repealed, all current US missions would continue unphased. If the Biden administration is serious about ending forever wars, it should work with Congress to end the justifications that enable wars to persist long past their completion.
LOOKS LIKE 2023 IS NOT THE YEAR
Measures like these remain long overdue. Only time will tell if they survive the Senate. Nevertheless, common-sense provisions, like restricting arms sales and repealing AUMFs of wars that are already over, simply should not draw more scrutiny than over $800 billion spent per year. The justification for this overinflated defense spending rests on the belief that the United States can simply do it all: remain overly involved in forever wars in the Middle East, arm the Ukrainians in perpetuity, and potentially defend, or supply the necessary arms, to repel China from invading Taiwan. These expectations are simply unrealistic.
Eventually, Washington will have to come to grips with this reality. However, it is abundantly clear that this will not happen in 2023.
Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.