Closing Overseas Bases Is Good Policy and Good Politics

by , November 03, 2011

It has been like a cross between a suspense and a horror movie. If the committee doesn’t come up with a compromise by the Thanksgiving deadline, the axes will come out. Perhaps only Washington insiders appreciate the suspense. As for the horror part, the blood will flow only later and largely out of sight of the cameras.

Like any terrifying story, the drawn-out saga of America’s budget deficit makes people stare with disbelief and yet desperately want to turn away their eyes. In the summer blockbuster that had audiences simultaneously cringing and rubbernecking, the president was able to avert a government shutdown by negotiating a budget deal with the Republican syndicate that included the establishment of a “supercommittee” to find another $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. If the committee fails, a set of automatic cuts will take place, roughly divided between military and domestic programs. The prospect of “deep” reductions in national security spending is supposed to make Republicans more amenable to compromise. That willingness to deal has yet to appear, however, and it has been the Democrats instead who have offered, in their habitually self-defeating preemption, several trillion dollars in cuts in entitlement programs.

If you dig deep enough, though, you can find some stirrings of bipartisanship, at least in the Senate. Our elected representatives are desperate to find cuts in military spending that won’t lead to job loss among their constituents. Weapons systems, however old-fashioned or redundant, at least keep assembly lines humming. But one cut would not compromise employment at home: U.S. overseas bases.

Earlier this month, Montana Democrat Jon Tester and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced a proposal to create a commission to evaluate U.S. military presence overseas. The bill [.pdf] does hold out the possibility that such a commission might recommend opening new bases overseas. But that’s just hedging bets. Tester and Hutchison are committed to examining “the potential benefits and savings realized by closing outdated overseas military bases.” In a letter to the supercommittee calling for immediate cuts in the overseas base budget, Tester and Hutchison were joined by two other Democrats, Mark Begich of Alaska and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and two other Republicans, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

We’re not talking chump change here. A domestic version of this commission, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, achieved an initial savings of $16 billion and another $6 billion of annual savings through the closure of 97 bases and 55 realignments through 2001. The 2005 round anticipated [.pdf] roughly $1 billion a year in additional savings through 2011. But closing domestic bases raises questions about the economic impact for local communities and on jobs that closing overseas bases doesn’t (at least for American voters).

The connection to the jobs issue is quite evident in the senators’ minds. “With today’s historic levels of debt, we need to move quickly to identify ways that we can bring our military training capabilities home, create American jobs in military construction, and save taxpayer dollars without sacrificing the security needs of U.S. forces and the American people,” Hutchison has said.

The idea of building new U.S. bases at home to accommodate these returning soldiers — at a time when the Pentagon acknowledges that the U.S. base system still suffers from considerable excess capacity — is perhaps far-fetched. Also, any domestic base construction must reckon with the anti-base movements that have cropped up in Guam, Hawaii, and in the continental United States. The Navy, for instance, has been trying to build a landing strip — the Outlying Landing Field — somewhere in North Carolina but has been turned back by organized citizen groups at every turn. Demobilization and training for truly useful jobs would be a better idea. But if Hutchison can convince her fellow Republicans to sign on to this overseas BRAC with such job-creation rhetoric, so be it.

Perhaps more convincing to both politicians and voters would be the actual budget savings. The problem is that these savings are not easy to calculate. The Bowles-Simpson commission estimated that a one-third cut in U.S. bases in Asia and Europe would save $8.5 billion by 2015. The Center for American Progress and the otherwise conservative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma argue for a reduction of 50,000 troops from Europe and Asia for a savings of $70 billion over the next decade. The ending of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can and should lead to a reduction, if not elimination, of U.S. bases in those countries. Iraq currently plays host to 39 bases, down from a peak of 505, and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in equipment and upkeep costs. In Afghanistan last year, the United States was still spending several billion dollars to build, expand, and maintain a network of 700 U.S., coalition, and Afghan bases.

Then there are the potential reductions associated with the weapons systems that are used almost exclusively for power projection from our bases (such as our carrier fleet) and the associated personnel costs for our soldiers overseas (health care and so on). Coburn estimates, in his exhaustive “Back in Black” proposal from July, that a reduction of one aircraft carrier and one Navy air wing would save $7 billion over 10 years. His overall proposal would cut $1 trillion over a decade from the Pentagon alone (and not simply overall national security spending, which includes portions of Intelligence, Homeland Security, and other budgets). In a 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) report, meanwhile, Anita Dancs estimated that nearly one-third of the Pentagon budget goes toward supporting U.S. overseas presence, but that figure includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the troops stationed in Europe and Asia.

So, how much money could we save by reducing U.S. military bases overseas and the weapons systems that support them? To be on the conservative side and avoid double-counting, let’s take the $70 billion saved by cutting troop levels by one-third, plus Coburn’s figure for reductions in maintenance due to base closures ($34 billion), then add one-third of the figure that Coburn proposes for cuts in weapons systems (roughly another $40 billion), and finally throw in one-third of the annual costs for maintaining U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (roughly another $40 billion). That brings us to $184 billion over 10 years. These cuts represent just what we save by reducing our overseas bases. We would, of course, save a great deal more money by withdrawing completely from Afghanistan and Iraq, eliminating all the unnecessary weapons systems, cutting our nuclear arsenal, and so forth.

To be fair, we must also note the other side of the ledger sheet. Our allies provide host-nation support that offsets the cost of our military presence overseas, though this figure amounts to only about $8 billion in direct and indirect support (and most of that from Japan). Even if we demobilize 50,000 soldiers of the 150,000 stationed overseas, we need to consider the costs of job retraining at home. And if we close bases overseas, we can’t simply stick our host nations with the full bill for cleaning up those sites (although that’s precisely what we did in the case of the Philippines, where we closed the Clark and Subic bases in the 1990s and didn’t cover the estimated $50 million in environmental clean-up costs).

Also, we must take note of the possible unintended consequences of closing U.S. military bases overseas. When the original BRAC closed the Philadelphia Navy Yards, it became a small-business incubator specializing in sustainable energy products. It wasn’t as though China or Russia or France was going to swoop in and buy up the facility to establish a military base of their own on U.S. territory. But if we close a military base in Japan, for instance, it’s very likely that the Japanese government will simply replace U.S. troops with its own Self-Defense Forces. The U.S. government saves money, but there may not be any net savings in militarism. Or, in the case of South Korea, U.S. base consolidation is prompting the government there to boost its own military spending and build new bases of its own, like the proposed naval base in Jeju Island.  These arguments, of course, don’t really apply to Europe, where governments are already cutting their military spending.

There are, of course, other reasons to cut our military bases overseas. They involve us unnecessarily in conflicts that should be handled either diplomatically or with multilateral forces. They serve as lightning rods for anti-American sentiment. They create environmental hazards.

But at this time of budget-trimming and anxiety over the unemployment rate, the killer arguments for our policymakers in Washington searching for “painless” Pentagon cuts will revolve around the domestic economic benefits. And for the first time in a long time, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to be getting the message.

Reducing Militarism Is Popular

Reducing U.S. military commitments overseas is not just popular at home. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan points out, Pakistanis too would like to see a change in U.S. policy, for instance in Afghanistan. “Pakistan and the United States may have profoundly different views of one another, but on at least one issue they agree,” he writes in “Pakistan: Reversing the Lens.” “Slightly over 90 percent of Pakistanis would like U.S. troops to go home, and 62 percent of Americans want an immediate cut in U.S. forces. Common ground in this case seems to be based on a strong dose of common sense.”

U.S. relations with its closest southern neighbor are also at an impasse. A new political movement that has emerged in Mexico by the name of MORENA, led by former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aspires to change all that. Recently, López Obrador was in Washington to dispense some common sense of his own. “‘It is not with military assistance or intelligence work, helicopters or weapon shipments that we will remedy the insecurity and violence problem in our country,’ said Obrador. He advocates instead a return to the ‘good neighbor policy’ first proposed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is based on a true partnership for development,” writes FPIF contributor Tania Arroyo in “A Way Out of Mexico’s Morass.”

In Algeria, meanwhile, the Arab Spring has yet to bloom. FPIF contributor Wided Khadraoui identifies three reasons. “The first is a lack of support from the intellectual and academic elites of the nation, making protests like the ones called for this past Sept. 17 irrelevant,” she writes in “Powder in the Eyes in Algeria.” “This lack of support is tied to the second reason, which is the lack of an authentic substitute for the current government. Opposition parties in Algeria have all failed to present better political prospects. Finally, Algeria is essentially a diffuse ‘mafia state’ with widespread corruption, bribery, and protection rackets.” 

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

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