The Problem with BRAC

The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission has just given President Bush its military base realignment and closure recommendations. On the surface, closing obsolete military bases in the United States sounds like a good thing. The Bush administration has even estimated that 20 to 25 percent of military bases are surplus, and that their closure could result in savings of over $3 billion a year. So, given that saving the taxpayers money is the goal, what possible problem could there be with the BRAC Commission?

There is one major problem with the BRAC Commission — a fatal flaw that calls the whole process into question. It is not that the military is being downsized. It is not that the United States might be rendered more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. It is not that no cost savings will ultimately be realized since the Defense Department budget will still increase no matter how many bases are closed. It is not that communities will suffer economically when a local base is shut down. It is not that local dignitaries have to shamelessly grovel before the BRAC Commission to keep their bases off the closure list. It is not that members of Congress have to suddenly come up with reasons why the base in their district is so strategically important.

The problem, in a word, is empire: the U.S. empire of troops and bases that encircles the globe. The only concern of the BRAC Commission is bases in the United States and its territories. The fact that the United States now has troops in 150 countries or territories is of no concern to the Pentagon, the president, the Congress, or the BRAC Commission.

Base closings in the United States began in the early 1960s. Back then the Department of Defense (DOD) was able to close obsolete bases without the involvement of Congress or any other government agency. Congress attempted to involve itself in the process in 1965, but President Johnson vetoed a bill that would have required the Pentagon to report any base closure programs to Congress.

In 1977, Congress passed, and President Carter signed, a law (PL 95-82) that required the Defense Department to notify Congress of any proposed base closings or reductions. The 1983 Grace Commission recommended the creation of an independent commission to study the need for base realignments and closures. These two events laid the groundwork for the modern BRAC Commission.

In 1988, the Commission on Base Realignment and Closure was created to recommend to Congress and the DOD military bases for realignment or closure. This first round of BRAC (as it is called) resulted in the closure, partial closure, or realignment of 145 military installations.

The next three BRAC rounds, which took place in 1991, 1993, and 1995, were carried out differently, as well as the round currently in progress. Under the new guideless adopted in 1990, it is the job of the Defense Department to draw up an initial list of bases to be closed or realigned and submit it to the BRAC Commission. Although the original BRAC Commission had twelve members, the Commission currently consists of nine members, all appointed by the president and congressional leaders and confirmed by the Senate. Working from that list, but also with the authority to add additional bases not recommended by the DOD, the Commission then recommends to the president which bases should be closed or realigned. The president reviews the BRAC recommendations, but can only accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety. If its recommendations are rejected, the BRAC Commission can resubmit a revised list. Congress, however, can still block the implementation of the package of BRAC recommendations, even if approved by the president.

There is no question that most of the bases recommended for closure by the BRAC Commission should be closed. If the Pentagon, the BRAC Commission, and the commander in chief all agree on the need for a particular base to be closed, and Congress acquiesces, it is hard to justify keeping it open. But before any bases in the United States are closed, a hard look needs to be made at the hundreds of U.S. military installations on foreign soil. If the purpose of the military is to defend the country, then why is the United States closing bases at home and expanding them abroad? Foreign military bases are for offense, empire, imperialism, intervention — not for defense. The conclusion is inescapable: the U.S. military does very little to actually defend the country. If it did then it would patrol our coasts and guard our borders instead of patrolling the Persian Gulf and guarding the borders of Iraq.

According to the latest DOD “Base Structure Report” for fiscal year 2005, the U.S. military has 770 military installations in thirty-nine countries. Is there some rational explanation why we should close military bases in America and maintain 106 military sites in South Korea? Is there any reason why the United States needs 302 military sites in Germany and 111 sites in Japan sixty years after World War II has ended?

There is no doubt that many bases in the United States are obsolete or unnecessary. And there is no doubt that closing or realigning these bases would result in significant cost savings. But the foreign bases should be closed first, the troops brought home to stay, and then, and only then, should the BRAC process proceed.