Thornberry Challenges Obama, Argues 'World is More Dangerous Today'

Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, makes a visit to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. (AF photo)
Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, makes a visit to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. (AF photo)

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday rejected President Barack Obama's State of the Union message that talk of America's enemies getting stronger and the U.S. growing weaker is "political hot air."

Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee cited as evidence escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, North Korea nuclear weapons testing, reports that Russia knocked out the power grid in parts of Ukraine and that Islamic State fighters in Syria are trying to develop chemical weapons and drones, Iran's reported missile launch near a U.S. Navy vessel and its recent detention of American sailors who drifted into Iranian waters.

"The world is more dangerous today than it was in 2009. And despite the president's claim last night, that is not just ‘hot air.' That's the fact. That's reality," Thornberry said.  The congressman also said it is unlikely Obama will do anything during his last year in office to change the current trajectory.

"No president is irrelevant, but in many respects I think the country and the world are moving on," he said. "So all that means is the next commander-in-chief, whoever he or she may be, is going to inherit a whale of a mess on their first day."

In his final State of the Union appearance on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Obama said that "al-Qaeda and now ISIL [Islamic State] pose a direct threat to our people, because in today's world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage.

But Obama also said the terrorist organizations "do not threaten our national existence. That's the story ISIL wants to tell; that's the kind of propaganda they use to recruit."

Thornberry also hit Obama for imposing rules of engagement on American service members in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan that increases the danger to their lives.

"In addition, there is an unprecedented degree of micromanagement from National Security Council staffers -- not only of the top management in DoD, but even of military service members in the field," he said, referring to the Defense Department.

Thornberry cited books by three former Obama administration Defense Secretaries -- Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel -- who all criticized the White House for micromanaging the Pentagon.

"Too often, decisions are driven by political considerations rather than security," the former officials claimed, the congressman said.

Thornberry also dismissed Obama's contention that "no nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that's the path to ruin."

"Unfortunately, that is changing," Thornberry said, adding that the committee he chairs has spent more time over the last year in classified and unclassified sessions on the issue of the U.S.'s eroding technological superiority.

The Pentagon's drive for technological breakthroughs -- called the "third offset" -- promises "the illusion" that a handful of breakthroughs will guaranty the country's leading edge, but changes come quickly and current threats are too diverse, he said.

At the same time, Thornberry said, the use of special operations forces has become all too frequent, which ultimately will cause them to lose some of their capabilities. All this against a backdrop of tighter budget restrictions, he said.

Thornberry said he is committed to providing the Defense Department with the funding and resources needed to retain the U.S.'s technological edge and capabilities.

An advocate of acquisition reform, Thornberry believes it's critical to adjust how the Pentagon procures equipment and systems so that money isn't wasted. He said he intends to refile legislation for a "standalone" acquisitions bill -- one not encumbered by other pieces of legislation -- that would later be included in the National Defense Authorization Act.

He also wants the Pentagon to go bigger on experimentation and prototyping, arguing an industry motto that one should "fail often to succeed sooner."

Also, the Defense Department bureaucracy needs to be tamed and slimmed, to facilitate operations and programs across the department.

He quoted Michelle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, who told lawmakers that a "tyranny of consensus  ... has come to dominate the Pentagon" as staffs and commands have grown and the need for agreement slows decision making.

"The Defense Business Board says that about half of all uniformed personnel serve on staffs that spend most of their time going to meetings and responding to tasks from the hundreds of offices throughout the [Defense Department,] including the 17 independent agencies, nine unified commands and 250 joint task forces," Thornberry said. "We have much more to do to de-layer and simplify."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

 

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