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If U.S. military bases are no longer needed, shutter them

Pentagon’s job isn’t economic development

Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

The Pentagon says it doesn’t want them, doesn’t need them, and can’t afford to maintain them.

Two congressional armed services panels say that’s just tough – you’re stuck with them.

So at a time of federal budget squeezing, the Defense Department’s effort to close installations rendered unnecessary by troop drawdowns has hit a political wall.

The wisdom of our Founders is manifest in many ways, nowhere more so than in their decision to put the American military under civilian authority. History has shown again and again that doing it the other way around seldom, if ever, leads to anything good.

But if there’s a downside even to that act of constitutional genius, this might be it: Civilian control is never completely independent of political control. Decisions for and about the armed services are sometimes made for reasons that have little or nothing to do with – indeed, might actively interfere with – the fundamental military mission of defending the country.

Pentagon leaders say troop reductions leave them with facilities they don’t need. More to the point, they say the money saved by closing and perhaps even selling off those facilities is needed for training and equipment.

This budget debate arises, of course, from sequestration: Defense must cut its budget for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, by about $41 billion. Those cuts have forced layoffs and furloughs among civilian workers and have even cut into what the Army says are essential training and maintenance functions.

No matter. Not only did the congressional committees turn thumbs down to base closure and downsizing, but the House Armed Services Committee added a provision that says the Pentagon can’t even plan for such a possibility.

One ostensible reason for lawmakers’ intransigence on this issue is the argument that shuttering facilities will, at least in the short term, cost more than it saves.

The more familiar and far more likely reason is that the economic impact of military facilities is often crucial to nearby communities. Protection of those economic benefits becomes a political priority for lawmakers with installations, along with satellite businesses and industries, in their districts.

The tough reality is that economic development is not the mission of the U.S. armed services. If Pentagon leaders make a compelling case that maintaining unnecessary facilities comes at the expense of essential national defense needs, their elected civilian bosses need to listen.

Our national defense establishment is being put in an untenable and possibly dangerous position: It’s being forced to cut things (and people) it insists it needs, and forbidden to get rid of what it doesn’t need.

All of which makes absolutely no military, economic, or common sense.

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