Ukraine Crisis Stokes Fears About Closing European Bases

Senate Armed Service Committee ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) talks with reporters.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
March 5, 2014, 1:57 p.m.

With U.S. poli­cy­makers in­creas­ingly alarmed by Rus­sia’s mil­it­ary oc­cu­pa­tion of Ukraine, some law­makers have ex­pressed con­cern about an­oth­er round of base clos­ures the Pentagon wants to start in 2017 — in­clud­ing some in Europe.

But how far law­makers are will­ing to go out on limb to in­ter­fere with for­eign base clos­ures is an­oth­er mat­ter.

Sen. James In­hofe, the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber, read­ily ac­know­ledges that de­fend­ing U.S. bases on for­eign soil can be a lonely job in Con­gress.

“It’s all driv­en by the fact that nobody has a con­stitu­ency out there, and so I have to do that,” he said. “At least I feel a re­spons­ib­il­ity to do that.”

Law­makers by and large are far more con­cerned about de­fense budget cuts that hit their own back­yards. For all the talk about fears that the de­fense budget does not provide ad­equate re­sources for na­tion­al se­cur­ity, the is­sues most mem­bers stick their necks out for are the weapons pro­grams that are rev­en­ue streams in their states and the po­ten­tial mil­it­ary-in­stall­a­tion con­sol­id­a­tions that threaten jobs back home.

“I wouldn’t fo­cus on base clos­ures, be­cause I don’t think law­makers are go­ing to do that,” said Ro­ger Za­kheim, of coun­sel with Cov­ing­ton & Burl­ing and a former deputy staff dir­ect­or with the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “Law­makers don’t rep­res­ent con­stitu­ents from Europe.”

However, a hand­ful of law­makers are rais­ing ques­tions in par­tic­u­lar about De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s au­thor­ity to close bases in Europe without con­gres­sion­al con­sent.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire has chal­lenged the De­fense De­part­ment’s au­thor­ity, and her state Demo­crat­ic col­league Jeanne Shaheen asked Hagel at an Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day for a re­port on what bases the de­part­ment is con­tem­plat­ing clos­ing in Europe.

“We need to look at our pos­ture in Europe and take that in­to con­sid­er­a­tion in terms of the threats we face … with re­gard to the for­eign base pos­ture, not just in Europe, but I think throughout the world,” Ayotte told re­port­ers Wed­nes­day. “Cer­tainly that is something we need to hear from DOD, but ob­vi­ously we need to take in­to ac­count the threats that we’re fa­cing, wheth­er it’s the Rus­si­an in­va­sion of Crimea or oth­er threats that we could face.”

In­hofe said he wor­ries, for ex­ample, about the U.S. Army’s gar­ris­on in Vi­cenza, Italy, which he views as par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant be­cause it was re­lied on in 2003 to send troops to Ir­aq.

But Mack­en­zie Eaglen, a fel­low with the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, called the re­cent pro­claimed up­roar “laugh­able” be­cause the Pentagon has been con­duct­ing an un­of­fi­cial round of base clos­ures in Europe since Sept. 11, 2001, cut­ting the man­power there by tens of thou­sands.

“We are al­most to a bare-bones in­fra­struc­ture for U.S. op­er­a­tions in Europe already, and Con­gress still calls for it be­cause it is the only thing they’ve got left to con­tin­ue to avoid with a straight face a do­mest­ic base-clos­ure round,” Eaglen said.

“There would have to be a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of pres­sure from NATO al­lies, a healthy num­ber of them, and a sus­tained amount of pres­sure [to change the dy­nam­ics], be­cause Con­gress is thrilled to keep clos­ing European bases — even if it means there’s an im­pact on op­er­a­tions — if it means they can use that as a jus­ti­fic­a­tion to con­tin­ue to avoid a do­mest­ic base-clos­ure round. Even with the situ­ation go­ing on in Ukraine.”

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina said that with the se­quester in place, the budget con­straints are so tough that there is no way to avoid base re­align­ment and clos­ure over­seas, not to men­tion at home.

“If you are do­ing se­quest­ra­tion, and you don’t change it, it is BRAC on ster­oids,” he said. “There is no way that you can have the base in­fra­struc­ture here at home if you stay on track to im­ple­ment se­quest­ra­tion. There is no way you can just touch our European mil­it­ary foot­print. It would be un­con­scion­able to keep these num­bers of bases open, giv­en a 420,000-per­son Army.”

Gra­ham ad­ded, “So if mem­bers of Con­gress are wor­ried about BRAC, well then, se­quest­ra­tion is go­ing to cre­ate a BRAC need un­like any time in mod­ern his­tory.”

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