Back when George W. Bush was running for President, he promised that if elected he would give his defense secretary “a broad mandate to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense.” The person he picked for the job, Donald Rumsfeld, certainly seemed temperamentally suited to that challenge. He had been challenging the status quo throughout his career (the November issue of Atlantic Monthly contains an essay by James Mann detailing just how bold — in fact, borderline liberal — Rumsfeld was during his service in the Nixon Administration).
But Bush was barely elected and everyone assumed he would be a friend of the military, so radical change under Rumsfeld didn’t seem likely. Well, guess again. Rumsfeld has challenged every assumption underpinning national defense, from nuclear deterrence to the Atlantic alliance to the congressional oversight process. What’s more, his forceful style and strong backing from the White House have enabled him to prevail on the vast majority of issues. Now he’s getting ready to besiege the biggest fortress on the political landscape — the network of domestic military bases that provides the economic lifeblood for hundreds of local communities.
Rumsfeld has told associates he wants to shutter 25% of military base capacity in a single round of base closures scheduled to take place in 2005. That’s more closures than the previous four rounds combined. Those earlier rounds will save the Pentagon over $60 billion dollars in this decade alone
— $6.6 billion per year, according to government calculations — and Rumsfeld is determined to generate further savings. But cutting a quarter of capacity might mean closing over a hundred of the 425 bases still scattered across the nation, and few states would be left unscathed.
Rumsfeld has also vowed not to cut any major weapons programs to cover Iraq peacekeeping costs, which is one reason why the supplemental appropriation the administration wants is bigger than the entire defense budget of any other country. But protecting military modernization isn’t controversial on Capitol Hill, and closing bases is. Last spring, 42 Senators supported an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have blocked the 2005 round. The measure failed (53 Senators voted to keep the plan on track), but it highlighted the resistance to change.
Rumsfeld didn’t pull his 25% closure goal out of a hat. Pentagon internal estimates are that 20-25% of base capacity is unneeded even in a major conflict. Rumsfeld views elimination of excess capacity as part of military “transformation” — creating a leaner fighting force that deploys money with the same precision and efficiency that it employs smart bombs.
In March of 2005 the President in consultation with Congress will appoint a nine-member Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Two months later, the defense secretary will give the commission a list of bases recommended for shutdown or realignment of mission. A simple majority vote of the commissioners is sufficient to keep any base on the list. The commission’s final list will be sent to the White House by September 8. If the President accepts it, the closures become law in 45 days unless Congress acts to block them — which has never happened in previous rounds, since the entire package must be voted up or down. Get ready for a political firestorm.
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