By Robert Burns
WASHINGTON — Despite resistance by Congress, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says military bases closures are necessary to save billions the military needs to spend elsewhere.
Rumsfeld said Americans must understand that if the military is forced to keep open unneeded bases, it will be starved of money it needs to modernize.
Many politicians oppose closing bases because it can hurt local economies. Rumsfeld dismissed their concerns.
"Life’s hard," he said. "Yeah, it might" be more difficult to sell in Congress now that the economic boom is over. "But first of all, the economy’s still growing, it’s not in the dumps. And second, national security is darned important."
Rumsfeld, now 69 and serving as Pentagon chief for the second time, spoke from his office overlooking the Potomac River. His first stint as defense secretary was in 1975-1977 in the Ford administration.
The administration has asked Congress to approve $329 billion in defense spending for the budget year starting Oct. 1 — $33 billion more than this year. Rumsfeld has said that even that increase — the largest since the mid-1980s — is not enough to address all the military’s problems.
Rumsfeld said he was encouraged that the Senate Armed Services Committee Friday voted for a new round of base closures. While acknowledging that the committee traditionally supports Pentagon cost-saving initiatives, he said some members who voted for it this time had opposed it last year.
Winning approval in the House may be more difficult.
In the past, the Pentagon has taken one of two approaches to paring bases: close them and sell the property after investing huge sums to clean up the environmental damage they had incurred in decades of use; or realign them by shifting people from several smaller bases to one large one.
Whatever the approach, Rumsfeld said, the goal should be to make it as simple and painless as possible.
"Try to do it in a way with the minimal trauma on the community. Get into it, get it over with and don’t try to cut off the dog’s tail one inch at a time hoping it hurts less," he said.
The Pentagon has proposed to Congress that in 2003 an independent commission act on recommendations from the Pentagon on which bases to close or consolidate. Rumsfeld said a single round of cuts could save the Pentagon $3 billion a year, although the savings would not start for several years.
There have been four rounds of base closings, in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995, affecting 97 major bases. The first was the work of a one-time commission; the final three were set up by a 1990 law.
Rumsfeld said he felt strongly that despite the political cost of asking Congress to close bases, it is necessary.
"Why the hell would I leave Illinois and Taos, New Mexico, and come down here simply to sit around with my finger in my ear and not do what I think is in the best interest of the country," he asked, referring to his hometown of Chicago and his ranch in Taos. "It seems to me it’s the right thing to do. The fact there are people fussing about it … doesn’t surprise me."
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