It might seem odd to be thinking about closing military bases just as America is embarking on what President Bush has called the first war of the 21st century. But the incongruity is more political than practical because the United States has more bases than it needs.
For that reason, the U.S. Senate has approved the Pentagon's plan for a new round of military base closings. Still, the closeness of the vote - 53-47 - underscores the political problem. The base closing proposal was part of the Senate defense authorization bill and it must now be reconciled with a House version that contains no base-closing provisions.
Dozens of redundant bases were closed in the four previous rounds of base closings, the last in 1995. Because the issue is so politically sensitive, an ingenious process was developed to insulate individual politicians from parochial concerns.
An independent commission judged the relative merits of bases and then submitted closure recommendations to the White House. If the list was approved by the president in full, Congress then voted it up or down.
But Republicans thought President Clinton broke the spirit of the arrangement in 1995 by playing politics - denouncing base closings in Texas and California even as he approved the whole list, and then seeking to protect some of the jobs at closed bases by privatizing them.
In Mr. Clinton's last term, Defense Secretary William Cohen tried hard and got nowhere on the issue. Now his successor, Donald Rumsfeld, is pushing the same cause. Philosophically inclined to remake the military anyway, he knows that the billions of dollars currently being wasted on inefficient bases could be better spent on more pressing military needs.
Ironically, the administration's main opposition is coming from members of its own party; more Democrats than Republicans voted for the Senate proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said: “At a time when our Reserves are being called up, our National Guards are being called up, our communities are being told to support our military ... we're going to say, `Oh, by the way, we're going to look at closing your base.' I think the timing is not good.”
In one sense, the timing is never good. But the first job of the military is not to be an economic engine for communities. Its job is to fight, and in that sense the timing has never been better.
What fighter steps into the ring bloated and too heavy? The U.S. military can be stronger for being a bit leaner, replacing the flab with muscle. Republicans, especially, ought to trust their defense secretary to make that happen.