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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