Overnight Defense: Groups use Afghanistan withdrawal to push for defense budget cuts | Confederate renaming effort could affect ‘hundreds’ of military assets | Progressives see ‘historic’ moment to shift US-Israel relations
Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Lawmakers and outside groups who want to see the defense budget slashed are turning to a new argument: the Afghanistan withdrawal.
In a letter Friday to the leaders of the defense appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate, 40 advocacy groups from across the political spectrum argued the Afghanistan withdrawal “offers an opportunity to re-examine the nation’s extremely large commitments to the Pentagon budget.”
“We are dismayed that the administration’s initial budget blueprint to Congress did not reflect a corresponding reduction in war funds, and instead included a gargantuan request of $753 billion for the Pentagon and affiliated spending,” the organizations wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Hill ahead of its release.
“We urge the congressional defense appropriations subcommittees to appropriate a lower topline than initially requested by the Biden administration to, at a minimum, reflect cost savings from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan,” they added in the letter to Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Lawmaker letter: A group of progressive Democrats also sent their own letter to Biden on Friday making the same argument.
“While your commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops is commendable and long-overdue, it should be accompanied by a corresponding commitment to reducing military spending. We urge you to reconfigure your Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) budget request to, at minimum, reflect the ‘peace dividend’ gained by exiting the war in Afghanistan,” wrote the 23 lawmakers, led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).
How much?: It’s unclear exactly how much money would be freed up by the withdrawal, with the advocacy groups in their letter citing analyses ranging from $20 billion to $50 billion.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier this month acknowledged budget “opportunities” stemming from the withdrawal but didn’t have specifics.
“Certainly anytime you stop doing something that’s this important and this big, it creates opportunities,” Austin told reporters. “So we’ll look at what the possibilities are going forward as opportunities are created.”
Timing: The latest push for defense budget cuts comes a week before the Biden administration is expected to release its full fiscal 2022 budget request.
The White House released a budget outline last month that said it would ask for $753 billion for defense, including $715 billion for the Pentagon.
But the details of what all that money would buy won’t come until the full budget is released June 28.
‘HUNDREDS’ OF MILITARY ASSETS COULD HAVE CONFEDERATE NAMES REMOVED
When Congress was debating last year whether to force the Pentagon to rename Confederate-named military assets, the bulk of the debate focused on 10 Army bases.
But in a Friday call with reporters, the head of the commission tasked with carrying out the renaming made clear the issue extends far beyond those bases.
“I think once we get down to looking at buildings and street names, this potentially could run into the hundreds,” retired Adm. Michelle Howard said of the number of military assets that could be affected.
About the Army bases: While the commission’s scope does extend beyond the Army bases named after Confederate leaders, Howard said its initial focus will be on nine of them that are owned by the Department of Defense: Forts Lee, Hood, Benning, Gordon, Bragg, Polk, Pickett, A.P. Hill and Rucker.
The tenth base named after a Confederate military officer, Camp Beauregard, does not fall within the commission’s authority because it is owned by the Louisiana National Guard, Howard said. But, she added, the commission has “started to coordinate with the National Guard just to get an understanding.”
In the Navy: The Navy has identified at least one ship so far to look at for renaming, Howard said: the USNS Maury, an oceanographic survey ship named after a commander who resigned from the U.S. Navy to sail for the Confederacy.
The number of Navy ships identified for the renaming effort is expected to grow, with Howard suggesting the USS Antietam guided missile cruiser as a possibility. The Battle of Antietam is considered a strategic victory for the Union in the Civil War, but a tactical stalemate.
Site visits coming up: The commission is also getting ready for its first site visit, which will be to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Howard said. Commissioners will also visit the U.S. Naval Academy later.
And over the summer and fall, commissioners will visit the nine Army installations with Confederate names, as well as Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Belvoir was originally named after a Union general, but had its name changed in the 1930s to that of the plantation that originally sat at the site, so Howard said the commission wants to “dig more deeply into the historical context and understand the shift.”
Howard said the site visits will be an important part of getting input from local stakeholders.
“One of the reasons we know we need to visit the installations in person is, we need an opportunity to meet with local civic leaders, as well as, for example, have discussions with the elected leaders,” she said. “We’ll be able to reach out to elected leaders, for example the local district congressmen, and they can help us identify community leaders that we need to speak to so that we can account for their perspectives as we go forward and develop the process for new names.”
PROGRESSIVE SEEK SHIFT IN US-ISRAEL RELATIONS
Progressive Democrats are pushing forward efforts to dramatically shift the U.S. relationship with Israel, as the dust settles from a cease-fire that ended 11 days of devastating war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Emboldened by firebrand lawmakers and an agenda centered around social justice for Palestinians, calls for conditioning military aid to Israel and criticisms of its actions have moved from the fringe of the Democratic Party to the floor of the House and Senate.
But Israel advocacy groups in the U.S. are mobilizing their supporters to reject efforts by progressives to halt $735 million in arms sales to Israel and other efforts to condition military assistance.
Meanwhile, Republicans are attacking President Biden’s “quiet, intensive” diplomacy as failing to stand up publicly for Israel while it’s under siege from Hamas rockets, and emboldening Hamas’s backer, Iran, with ongoing talks about the nuclear agreement.
“Domestic politics has always been a reality when it comes to U.S. and Israeli relationship, and U.S. support of Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, who served as a negotiator on Israeli and Palestinian peace efforts across Republican and Democratic administrations.
“I think now more than any time I’ve watched this movie — the stress on the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the criticisms of Israel’s actions are probably greater now than ever before,” he added.
But arms sale push likely to fail: The effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to block the $735 million arms sale to Israel appears doomed in the Senate.
Sanders faces multiple headaches that essentially guarantee his resolution won’t pass the Senate.
The main problem for Sanders is pretty straightforward: Absent some flip-flopping, he doesn’t have the votes.
In addition to the vote shortage, it’s unclear whether Sanders’s resolution will qualify for the fast-track procedures that allow him to bring it to the floor.
The 15-day congressional review period ended this week. A Senate aide and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) both said they expected that once the review window expires, Sanders’s resolution loses its privileged status that allows him to force a quick vote, but Sanders insists he’ll be able to force a vote. Democrats said the parliamentarian has been asked to help resolve the dispute.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will provide the commencement address for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/2QElAyn
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