President Obama told the graduating class of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets on Wednesday that they are starting their service at a time when the burden of national security no longer falls so heavily on the military's shoulders.
"You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq," Obama said in a campaign-like speech in Colorado Springs, Colo., that was thin on policy and largely devoted to declaring his foreign policy a success over the last four years. "We've put al-Qaeda on the path to defeat. And you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can see clearly how we'll end the war in Afghanistan."
Obama pledged to keep the military fast, flexible, versatile, and superior. But what was left unsaid by the president was the lack of peace and harmony between the White House and Congress regarding how to fund the military going forward.
The House of Representatives last Friday approved its plan for the Pentagon's budget for next year. But House lawmakers, including 77 Democrats, passed the $642 billion bill despite a veto threat from Obama. The House plan adds $8 billion more for the military next year than what the president has called for. It's a wide financial discrepancy that Obama left out of his commencement address at the Air Force Academy.
In this election year, Republicans are trying to portray themselves as being behind the military, as the Pentagon faces an uncertain future after the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mitt Romney, Obama's presumptive opponent this November, is also backing increases in defense spending.
The House lawmakers went against the president by approving an amendment to the bill that prohibits Obama from making any unilateral reductions to U.S. nuclear forces. Arguing that it would give rights to foreign terrorists, Republicans also rejected an amendment to the defense-spending bill that would have allowed suspected terrorists detained in the United States to be charged with crimes and tried in federal courts.
But these are not the only areas in which conservative lawmakers used the defense bill to set up clear distinctions between themselves and the Obama administration heading into this fall's elections.
For example, an approved amendment to the House defense bill explicitly prevents same-sex marriage services from taking place on U.S. military bases.
"The administration's recent actions have created uncertainty regarding ceremonies permitted on military installations," said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., one of the amendment's sponsors. "This amendment is intended to clear up any doubt and reinforce the [Defense of Marriage Act's] authority as it applies to those installations."
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., successfully pushed through a second amendment to protect the religious liberty of all military service members, particularly military chaplains. Akin's amendment creating a statutory conscience protection clause for service members came at the request of military chaplain organizations that have reported an increase in censorship and discipline directed at soldiers who have moral or religious concerns about same-sex marriage.
"This liberal agenda has infiltrated our military," Akins said. "Moral or religious concerns about same-sex marriage or the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' have become potentially career-ending."
In a recent letter sent to Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a group of 19 retired military officers and pastors representing the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty highlighted some of these recent abuses including:
- A senior chaplain on a major stateside military base lost his authority of the chapel under his charge for insisting that, in accordance with federal law, the chapel wouldn't be used to celebrate unions between same-sex couples.
- Another chaplain was threatened with early retirement and reassigned to a position with more supervision for forwarding an email reflecting on the former "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy regarding gays in the military.
"Until Congress acts decisively, efforts to silence the voices of our military chaplains of all faiths and backgrounds will likely continue well into the future," states the letter from the alliance, which represents more than 2,000 military chaplains.
The Obama administration issued a statement saying that it "strongly objects" to these amendments protecting chapels and the conscience of chaplains and other service members. The administration stated that those provisions "adopt unnecessary and ill-advised policies that would inhibit the ability of same-sex couples to marry or enter a recognized relationship."
The administration added that the religious and moral beliefs protected by the amendments are overbroad and would be "potentially harmful to good order and discipline." Denying service members access to facilities such as chapels on the basis of sexual orientation, would, according to the administration, be "troublesome."
As the Senate now finalizes its version of the defense-spending bill, groups like The Secular Coalition for America are lobbying that the religious conscience clause protections not be included. The coalition argues that the amendments would lead to harassment of the gay and lesbian military community.
But Rep. Palazzo, while promoting his amendment protecting chapels from hosting same-sex union ceremonies during committee debates, argued that the Defense Department facilities are federal property so they already fall under the jurisdiction of DOMA.
"The Defense of Marriage Act was clear in defining marriage for purposes of the federal government," Palazzo said. "This amendment does nothing else but clarify for the Department of Defense that this standard should be upheld on military bases."