I spent my career in the armed forces defending the United States and the values it stands for. That is why I am so concerned about the misuse and politicization of our military. While this has happened on occasion in the past, the Trump administration has intensified and institutionalized it, weakening our commitment to American ideals and our national security.
The good news is that with the annual National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has a precious opportunity to send a strong bipartisan signal that our values can and must be the cornerstone of national security policy. As the legislation moves to a conference committee, both the House and Senate versions contain crucial common sense provisions.
The defense bill can prohibit the use of the military for any immigration actions that are not humanitarian related, and can provide support and protections to immigrants who have aided or served in our military. This is needed because the commander in chief has deployed thousands of troops to the southern border to build walls and support other legally questionable and morally dubious immigration enforcement actions.
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, among other authorities, has pointed out that our troops are trained not to engage in immigration enforcement actions but to pursue military objectives within the law and consistent with our values. It is hard to escape the notion that the Trump administration is using the military to bolster its political narrative that the country faces an “invasion” of immigrants. It is time to bring our troops back from the border so they can do the job for which they are trained.
Our military is also involved in the quagmire in Yemen, where war is exacerbating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. We are losing credibility each day by providing arms support to the Saudi coalition, whose military campaign has included war crimes and disregard for civilians. While the military has taken the positive step of suspending refueling support for coalition bombings, the Trump administration has ignored approval requirements and continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite bipartisan objections in Congress.
Fairly or not, United States support is seen in the region as approval of horrific human rights abuses by the Saudi government, including the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the illegal jailing of women human rights activists. Most unfortunately, we are now seen by the rest of the world as being complicit in such tragedies.
In this case, as in so many others, taking the moral high ground is in the interest of the United States because the war in Yemen is undermining the battle against terrorism. As Major General Margaret Woodward, the former Air Force commander who ran the air war against the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, said, “Ending the war in Yemen is the most effective way to curtail threats from Al Qaeda and other terrorists groups.”
Congress has a chance to include key provisions related to Yemen in the final bill, such as suspension of American air to ground munitions sales and logistical support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A separate crucial provision would identify and impose sanctions on those Saudi officials responsible for the Khashoggi murder, sending a much needed signal that the killing of dissidents cannot go unpunished.
This defense bill is also an opportunity for Congress to reassert its proper constitutional role in authorizing and overseeing our wars. Successive administrations have exploited outdated war authorizations for purposes far beyond what Congress intended, harming both civilians and our national security. With this bill, Congress could sunset the 2002 war authorization and set the stage for implementing new safeguards to prevent any further overreach under the 2001 war authorization.
The House and Senate bills also contain provisions that build on prior bipartisan efforts to ensure that both Congress and the American people have sufficient information about the legal and policy basis for military operations and resulting casualties. Such transparency and oversight, critical to the legitimacy of military operations, can be achieved while protecting our classified and sensitive national security information.
Finally, Congress can take productive steps relating to a problem that has cost the country a great amount in both money and standing. This is the prison at Guantanamo Bay. One provision would prevent the government from sending more detainees to Guantanamo Bay and another would overturn restrictions on bringing detainees to the United States, giving the president the necessary leeway to decide whether and when to transfer detainees for criminal prosecution or for medical treatment.
As the funding bill for the military, the National Defense Authorization Act always gets bipartisan support. The question is whether the parties will use it to perpetuate problems or to fix them. Let us hope they seize this precious opportunity to realign national security with American ideals.
John Hutson is a former United States Navy officer and judge advocate general who was dean of the University of New Hampshire Law School.