This week, senior Pentagon officials and nominees for top defense policy posts will testify in Congress about the state of the U.S. armed forces and where national defense policy goes from here. As we enter the final two years of President Obama's second term, they should be telling us how the president can leave the country stronger, safer and better respected around the world than when he arrived at the White House.
On Tuesday morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee holds confirmation hearings on nominees for top Pentagon posts, including Robert Work for Deputy Secretary of Defense and Christine Wormuth for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. On Wednesday and Thursday, four senior military commanders -- including General John Kelly of the Southern Command and Admiral William McRaven, who runs special operations -- will testify on the state of their commands.
President Obama was right when he said "democracy demands" that all wars must end. Last month, he reaffirmed he wants to move America "off a permanent war footing" in his State of the Union address. Now is the time for senior Pentagon officials to explain the steps they'll take to get us there. They should also explain how exactly the military is using its force in our name right now.
For example, who does the Pentagon consider a "combatant" in the war against al Qaeda, and which of the group's so-called "associated forces" are we also at war with? Will the Pentagon finally provide the names of the men and women around the world that have been killed by U.S. drones, and why each one was killed? And when the U.S. government is killing people outside the war zone of Afghanistan, which laws is it relying upon? In other words, where and when is the United States acting as if in an armed conflict, and therefore following the laws of war, and when is it acting beyond a war zone, where it's obligated to follow international human rights law, to respond to an imminent threat that cannot be effectively stopped otherwise? Finally, how will the United States assure skeptical allies -- and potential enemies -- that we're only using lethal force to kill suspected terrorists outside an armed conflict when the threat is truly imminent and capture is really not feasible?
President Obama has set some strict standards for the use of lethal force "beyond the Afghan theater," as he calls it. Last spring he said his administration will only target individuals who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to "the American people," and when there is a "near-certainty" that civilians won't be killed or injured. But how does his administration square that with reports that a U.S. drone in December killed 12 people in Yemen, and wounded at least 15 more, as they traveled to a wedding? Witnesses said the victims had nothing to do with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group the U.S. government says poses a danger in Yemen. When will U.S. officials tell us what really happened, and explain how it will make sure such a tragic mistake doesn't happen again?
President Obama last year pledged to work with Congress to "refine and ultimately repeal" the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which authorized the United States to fight those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11 and those who harbored them. With "core" al Qaeda largely decimated, it's time for the Pentagon to start laying out its plans for conducting counterterrorism more strategically in a post-war setting. What role can the U.S. military play to keep Americans safe without keeping us mired in an endless state of war?
Finally, there's Guantanamo. When General Kelly testifies on Wednesday, he'll surely be asked about the notorious detention center. Created a dozen years ago to temporarily hold wartime captives, it's now imprisoning 155 men captured around a decade ago, the vast majority of whom still have never been charged with a crime. General Kelly has testified before that the prison camp is deteriorating and the aging men face significant health issues moving forward, all of which means the costs of Guantanamo -- already $2.8 million per detainee annually -- will continue to mount. If the camp were closed, what else could General Kelly be doing with that money to help keep Americans safe?
As the Obama administration proceeds with its plans for withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan this year, the country is feeling hopeful that this long and costly war may soon come to an end. Senior Pentagon officials need to explain to Congress and the public how the U.S. military will help boost U.S. national security by moving us out of a state of perpetual global war and towards a safer, more peaceful post-war era.