You'd think as long as Republicans keep demanding that (Democratic) political leaders "listen to the generals" that they would actually check with "the generals" first. But, last week, in little noticed comments, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, gave his full-winded support to Navy biofuel efforts that key Republicans lawmakers are trying to scuttle.
"I tell you what, I support efforts for alternative fuel. We're doing a lot right now in our little small piece of the world in Afghanistan, in combat outposts with regards to alternative fuel," he said at a National Press Club luncheon, citing the Marine Corps' use of solar and wind-derived energy while discussing the Navy's efforts. "I'm a big believer in biofuels, excuse me, in alternative fuels -- in our case, alternative energy -- and the biofuel, I think, is probably just one step along the way."
Amos' comment effectively rejects key language conservatives have attached to the defense authorization bills moving through Congress, which would ban the Defense Department from making future biofuel purchases.
It's significant because, for the most part, Republicans have aimed their biofuel attacks at Navy Secretary Ray Mabus -- a political appointee who has taken on the cause with gusto -- and not the military brass, who have supported the pursuit of alternative energy sources. Many defense supporters back the hunt for ways to get around the dangerous job of shipping fuel into war zones -- a deadly lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan. But some hawks and climate change skeptics have argued since last winter that the Navy's "Great Green Fleet" is a frivolous Obama administration experiment that takes away funding from other defense needs and deserved to be cancelled.
What is the fleet? The Navy has led practically the entire U.S. government in the push for alternative energy. (No surprise given it's nuclear-powered history.) While the military has deployed smaller alt energy efforts like recycling wastewater or using solar energy to power bases and equipment deep inside Afghanistan, the Pentagon also is going big. An F/A-18 Super Hornet has successfully flown using a biofuel mixture, earning the nickname "Green Hornet. So, the Navy pledged to show it could power ships on the stuff too: a Great Green Fleet. (The name plays off the Great White Fleet, Teddy Roosevelt's show-of-force PR stunt of U.S. ships that circumnavigated the globe from 1907 to 1909.)
Opposition toward Mabus heated up last December after the Navy boasted of its $5 million purchase of 450,000 gallons of biofuel intended to power ships for a maritime exercise this summer. Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, in one notable exchange, reminded Mabus that he was not the secretary of energy.
So, in May, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, surprised defense watchers when he passed an amendment to the House defense authorization bill that would prevent DOD from making future purchases of any fuel more expensive than normal petroleum-based ones -- effectively killing the biofuel program and green fleet efforts. The House passed the bill.
Senate Democrats were surprised later that month when Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., emerged from the panel's closed-door mark-up with an authorization bill that included two additional similar measures banning biofuels. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., the panel's ranking member, and James Inhofe, R-Okla., led that effort.
Immediately, Democrats like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine pledged to block the ban from becoming law. The Senate bill still awaits floor debate, which at this point is not expected to happen until well into the lame duck session.
Meanwhile, the green fleet performed well in this summers' Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, known as RIMPAC. The Navy used a biofuel and petroleum mixture to power several fighter jets, two destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser. The cost: $12 million, or according to some reports about four times more than regular fuel.
Mabus quickly defended the Navy's program for proving that biofuel mixtures can work to power the fleet, if ever needed.
It's a big "if" -- meaning, if oil supplies are cut off or run so low, this particular form of alternative energy could work. But the program also serves another purpose that irks some conservatives, in helping kick-start private alternative energy markets that otherwise would not exist without the Pentagon-level investment.
One can almost see the GOP strategist's chalk board. Problem: Democrats are increasing government spending on alternative energy, while cutting defense spending. Solution: Hammer Obama and his political appointee Mabus.
But Gen. Amos's comments demonstrate again the danger of this approach. This spring, vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., argued for higher defense spending levels than President Obama requested by claiming "the generals" did not honestly support the commander-in-chief's Pentagon budget. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, at the time, doubled-down on Ryan's claim by alleging there was silent dissent among generals in the Pentagon. Conservative surrogates claimed generals know any disagreement with Obama at this point would be career-ending.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta strongly denied claims contrarians have been silenced, and several of the joint chiefs publicly reissued their support for their service's budget requests. "My response is: I stand by my testimony," Dempsey quickly told reporters traveling with him overseas, referring to Ryan's quip.
Two weeks later, both leaders hit back at McConnell's claim of quieted generals. "They sure as hell can be given a voice," Panetta said, at a Capitol Hill appearance, citing 50 budget hearings in Congress with the brass by April. Dempsey actually laughed at the premise, "I've never heard of any such thing happening in my entire 38 years. How do I answer that question?" Dempsey called on "any generals" to come see him if they feel that way.
In short, Ryan's claim that Obama didn't listen to his generals backfired badly for Republicans, then. And they have been reminded of the Ryan gaffe since Mitt Romney tapped him as his running mate. Now, on biofuels Republicans again have positioned themselves against the brass. It begs the question: How many more times will the "listen to the generals" line backfire on Republicans before GOP leaders drop it?
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers/Released