A War of Politics vs. Military Needs

Now comes all the political leveraging, the exercise that takes place whenever the Pentagon decides it needs to revamp its bases, closing out jobs here, moving some there without much regard for the communities that depend on them.

The process will take months to sort out and at times provide much drama. In fact, it may be a welcome diversion in the never-ending war over Social Security. The most outrageous claims of disaster will emanate from congressional offices severely impacted by the decisions, and dozens of state and local committees and officials will enter the fray with pilgrimages to Washington to try to save their bases. In the end it won’t make much difference. Only a few of the recommended closings, if any, will be rescinded.

In the current list of closings, probably the facility with the best chance of being spared is Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota’s second-leading employer. And that depends on whether newly elected Republican Sen. John Thune has the clout with the White House he claimed he did when he delivered a body blow to the Democrats by defeating their Senate leader, Thomas Daschle. Thune’s neck is out there a bit because his contention about the president’s ear and saving Ellsworth from such a fate was made during the heat of a bitter campaign.

Given the importance President Bush put on his election, one might expect Thune to have some leverage in this matter. Certainly, his constituents will demand that he use it by making it clear to the Oval Office that his support for the president’s pet projects, including Social Security reform, John Bolton’s confirmation as U.N. ambassador and ending the filibuster of judicial nominees, will depend on Ellsworth’s disappearing from the list.

Efforts by Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman to save Connecticut’s revered New London submarine facility, synonymous with the nation’s underwater military development, will have somewhat less of a chance of succeeding.

Lieberman on occasion has been one of the few Senate Democrats to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. He is considered a moderate who doesn’t always hew to his party’s line. His voice could be expected at least to carry more weight than the average lawmaker’s.

There is nothing wrong with all this hauling and tugging. It is the way things always have operated in Washington. What is wrong is the apparent failure of the base-closing panel to consider the possible impact on affected communities, schools, jobs, zoning and so forth.

For instance, take the huge Washington metropolitan area, where even the slightest shift in government employment can utterly disrupt the dependent traffic, real estate and building patterns of communities 60 miles out.

According to reports, the proposal to switch thousands of military-related jobs from inside the Capital Beltway to outside of it and away from mass transit will put huge numbers of additional cars on the road, straining an already overtaxed road system and placing new burdens on Virginia and Maryland. Surely someone should have taken this into consideration before making the proposal. But then when it comes to these matters, at least, it always has been the way of the military to think in terms of what it considers best for national defense and not necessarily considering the impact on those who must live and work around its decisions.

In the past, most communities have survived the disruption. For instance, the closing of the Army’s Fort Ord, a leading employer in California’s Monterey area 10 years ago, has been offset by the establishment of a new university. Unfortunately, however, many communities are still waiting for the military to release the land and for the government to provide some leadership for civilian development of abandoned stations and bases.

Every community should understand just how fickle the Pentagon is as a partner. Only a relative few military bases are thought to be immune from the ravages of sudden changes in strategy and emphasis. It is best, then, for a community to enjoy the fruits of such a presence for as long as it lasts, but make provisions against the time when it will be gone, struck down by the whim of a new panel of experts and strategists.

Depending on political leverage, to save the day is a very iffy proposition even if you’re John Thune.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)