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May 13, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Across the nation this week, people on military bases and in their surrounding communities waited for the axe to fall. That's the way people look at it when the Pentagon says it is going to close domestic military bases because they have five to 10 percent more space than they need. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld argues that closing and consolidating bases can save nearly 49 billion dollars over the next 20 year, money which can be better spent as part of his plan to build a leaner, quicker, and more flexible military force. But in communities around the nation, military bases are seen as sources of jobs and money and economic security, and the possibility of losing them makes people anxious. We visited The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the oldest naval shipyard in America, continuously operated since 1800.

DICK INGRAM: Let's have a round of applause for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and all its supporters.

WOMAN: It's great that people are rallying together. There's a lot of history at the Shipyard. I had both my grandparents, my grandfathers worked there. My mother worked there during World War II. My father's a naval veteran, worked there after being released during World War II. My brothers worked there for 25 years. I work there. There's a lot of history and a lot of these people have the same history there.

DICK INGRAM: My name is Dick Ingram. I'm the president of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and I'm proud to welcome you here.

DICK INGRAM: I'm sort of the face on the local business community, and I'm looking at one of the largest employers in the area threatened with shutting down. We're talking about nearly 5,000 workers. And in this area that is significant. It's also a half a billion dollar economic engine for this region. Local car dealers, convenience store owners, banks, cultural institutions -- it all goes away. And we would struggle mightily without that here.

BAR OWNER: I would say my business would be cut in half. And I probably couldn't survive.

LIBRARIAN: Families are going to have to leave.

MAN: It would become a ghost town, for all intents and purposes.

MAN: I work at the shipyard. I'm an engineer.

MAN: I'm a rigger for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

MAN: I work in the business office.

MAN: I'm a mechanical engineer on the propulsion, steamer propulsion system.

MAN: President and chief steward for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters over there.

PAUL O'CONNOR: by trade I'm an electrician at the shipyard. This October I will have been there 30 years, on time. It's where we used to build our submarines. Our job now is to repair, maintain and modernize the nuclear submarine fleet. Unfortunately, right now they're cutting up submarines at a faster rate than they're building them, that's true. The fact that the cold war is over doesn't mean that we will not need nuclear deterrence in the future. It doesn't mean that we don't need to defend ourselves as a nation, because we certainly do. What's at stake? Well, the obvious, our jobs. Maybe not so obvious, our trust and faith in the government.


JANN GRAY: I've worked at the shipyard for 23 years. And I decided to apply at the Shipyard because my father was working there at the time and my grandfather had also worked there. He thought he would help the country by coming here and help building the submarines. There's only four shipyards left, and I would hate to see any of them close because I think they're all necessary. We're at war right now. So I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. I'm afraid we're going to go from Iraq to maybe Iran to who knows -- Korea and, you know, I don't think closing military bases right now, especially one of four nuclear shipyards, is smart business.

CAPT. PETER BOWMAN (USN Ret.): Yes, I was on the 1993 Base Closure Commission referred to as BRAC which is a term I don't like but everybody's familiar with it. If the Shipyard were to close -- and I do not want, I want to go on record as saying that I very, very much hope it does not close -- it will be economically painful, personally painful. But if it does, time marches on. We have some bases that really don't serve a purpose any more -- are not, they're not consistent with what the military is finding itself doing. So I think that the base closure process is an extremely effective way to cut down on excess base capacity. It works. It may be painful, but it gets the job done.

WOMAN WITH MICROPHONE AT RALLY: It's a honor to fight every day and any day for the best shipyard in the United States Navy.

JANN GRAY: If we don't end up on the list we want to fight to make sure we continue staying off the list. If we do end up on the list then we're in for the fight of our lives to get ourselves off that list, to prove that we are a very valuable asset. It's a stressful time for sure.

PAUL GIGOT: At the end of the week, when Secretary Rumsfeld released the list of bases he wants to close, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was on the list. Thirty-two other major bases and 100 smaller facilities could also be closed. And now the people who depend on them, along with lobbyists and elected officials, will have until September to fight Rumsfeld's choices.

With me to discuss all this are: Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial page; Melanie Kirkpatrick, associate editor of the editorial page; and John Fund, who writes for OPINIONJOURNAL.COM. Melanie, you looked at the list that was released by the Pentagon. What does it tell us about the strategy of the U.S. military as it tries to adapt to the new threats in the world?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Well very simply it says the Cold War is over and the War on Terror has begun. This process of transformation has already begun, and this is just the latest step in it. Last year, for example, the Pentagon announced that it was bringing home 50 thousand troops from Europe and about 15 thousand troops from South Korea. And along with them come about 100 thousand dependents. So we have to find a place for them here at home to be based.

I think the base closing list also shows the shift in where we think the threat is -- more away from Europe and more toward Asia and the Middle East. And you can see that in the way quite a few facilities in the East have been closed while those in other parts of the country, particularly in the West, have been expanded.

But second, it also says something about a concept that the military likes to call "jointness," and which we've heard a lot about this week, but that refers to the coordination of the different services in fighting the wars of the future. We've already seen that in Afghanistan and in Iraq, how the services have to inter-operate. And one of the things we see in this list of base closings is that a lot of the training facilities have been joined to encourage the different services to not only work together but train together first.

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, on this point about the Cold War strategy, one of the bases that's proposed to be closed is Ellsworth Airforce Base in South Dakota. Now that's the home to about half of our B1B bomber fleet. B1B bombers, as those of us who fought the battle to fund it in the Cold War remember, was a low-flying bomber, supposed to penetrate Soviet air space and go hit targets deep in the Soviet Union. We're not going to do that anymore. So the question is, do we really need that many bases in the United States for those bombers? That's the kind of decision that's being made here, isn't it?

DAN HENNINGER: That's exactly the kind of decision that's being made. This is such an enormously complex process. It's not fighting -- we can no longer think about fighting wars 20 years out. You've got to be thinking about the war you're going to be fighting next year. Just consider some of the subjects we discuss on this program over the past year: Iraq, the nuclear threat from Iran, which emerged over the past six months, and North Korea. These are contingencies that the people planning America's strategic posture have to be aware of, and they have to adjust for. And so if you just -- before this process started, most of the focus was on the threat from China. When 9/11 happened, the threat moved away from China and back into the Middle East, and the process of adjusting these base closings is going to have to take all of this into account.

PAUL GIGOT: History shows that the hardest thing for a democracy to do, and the military in a democracy, is to prepare for the next war -- not the past one, because once you've built up weapons systems you've built up constituencies and support in Congress for keeping them, even if they're not supposed to -- that really wouldn't work against an emerging threat like China.

John, we saw on the taped piece these individual stories of the people who have so much at stake. What's been the history of what happens in the previous base closings to a lot of these places? Is it as dire for most of them as of course the people in Portsmouth are fearing?

JOHN FUND: No. I come from a military family, and I agree with Melanie that even in a time of war dollars are finite. If you have dollars spent on bases that aren't necessary, you're not helping the national security. Now, my father worked at McClellan Airforce Base in Sacramento, California for 20 years. Sacramento was hit hard by these base closings. We lost three facilities -- the Army depot, Mayfair Airforce Base, and McClellan, 23 thousand jobs. Now, we've had a revival. About 75 percent of the jobs have been replaced. They're in medical research, they're in bioengineering, they're in warehousing. All kinds of things are moving into those former facilities.

Now, it is true that if you get to a rural area that's not economically prosperous -- rural Maine or rural South Dakota -- they are going to have problems. But a lot of these areas -- and Portsmouth is one of them -- will be able to bounce back if you have an imaginative local government that plans for the future.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, I would say that most of the bases -- the history of the four previous rounds shows that the overwhelming majority of bases turned this process from lemons into lemonade, as somebody once said. And that a lot of new jobs are created eventually. Another very good example of that is, Bergstrom Airforce Base in Austin, which closed in the mid-90s. And with it, I think, there were 3900 military jobs. But now, it is Austin's new airport, and 37,000 jobs have been created.

PAUL GIGOT: We're to spend about 466 billion dollars probably on defense this year, and that seems like a lot. But you know, in the terms of the size of the economy it's about 3.8 percent. That's smaller than it was when Bill Clinton first took office in 1993, about 30 percent smaller than it was at the height of the cold war buildup in the 1980s.

It goes to show you, we don't have a lot of margin for spending on things that are inappropriate or really design to meet the threat.

JOHN FUND: That's exactly right. And that's why I think the process that's taking place here, that was reflected in the filmed piece, is entirely appropriate. It's good, it's positive, it's an opportunity. Just as corporations shut down plants, they rationalize, management has to be accountable to that. And I don't think there's any reason why Donald Rumsfeld having released this list shouldn't have his feet held to the fire by a very public process that puts all of these issues on the table -- our strategic needs, our internal needs, and indeed the needs of these local economies -- and debates it.

PAUL GIGOT: You know John, on that point, this political process, this base-closing process, is really unusual in our political system, is it not? In a way it's designed to insulate the members of Congress from having to take responsibility for a base in their district being closed. How does it do that?

JOHN FUND: Stop me before I spend again. Dick Army, who was a public choice economist, created this system because he understood human nature, he understood how government worked. He knew that left to their own devices members of Congress would never agree on what to do, including what they had to do. So by creating this process in which the members of Congress get to complain but at the same time we make the necessary adjustments -- this is one of those rare areas where government actually really works as intended.

PAUL GIGOT: You can have a base added to the list in the next deliberations, or taken off by the Commission, but only with a vote, I believe, of seven of the nine commissioners. So you really have to make your case. And the list is sort of created, is it not, to make sure that there's enough on it to close bases we don't want, but not too much that it risks losing in an up or down vote.

JOHN FUND: The level of pain is carefully calibrated.

PAUL GIGOT: That's right. Now the previous four have passed -- the previous four commissioned lists have passed, Melanie. How do you size it up for this time around?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I think it's going to be tough. For example, we already hear John Thune of South Dakota as saying he's going to fight the closing of ...

PAUL GIGOT: Of Ellsworth.

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Of Ellsworth in South Dakota. But essentially I think it'll probably pass, although the politicking has already begun.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, it's interesting. You know, it's balanced. There's no partisanship that one can detect, at least at this stage. We got a quick press release this week from Ted Kennedy, of all people, extolling the virtue of this list because Massachusetts -- it was a victory for Massachusetts. Whereas Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, has said, "I don't know about this." Some bases in Tennessee that get closed.

To make this work, you almost have to gore everybody's ox a little bit.

DAN HENNINGER: Well also, they're very powerful members that will throw monkey wrenches into this. Trent Lott literally tried to block some of President Bush's appointees because he was trying to protect some bases in Mississippi. I see from the list that he failed.

PAUL GIGOT: No, that's right. He did not want those people to be appointed. And the President, Melanie, had to name the members of the commission as to what he called a "recess appointment," which means when Congress was not in session, right?


DAN HENNINGER: Well Trent Lott lost Pascagoula in Mississippi. It's a perfect example. Why do you need a naval base in Mississippi if the threat is coming from the Pacific and you are more likely to be based in California? I mean, those are the kinds of choices that have to be made.

PAUL GIGOT: All right. Let's go around the table quickly. John, how do you think this is going to go in the end? Is this going to pass?

JOHN FUND: A lot of Sturm und Drang and complaining and everyone knows it's going to pass.

PAUL GIGOT: Okay, Dan?

DAN HENNINGER: I think there will be some trade-offs, some additions and subtractions, but ultimately it will hold up.

PAUL GIGOT: Melanie?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I think the commission will add a few, subtract a few, if the president will accept it and Congress will talk about it and pass it.

PAUL GIGOT: You know, and an added bit -- I agree with you all. And an added bit of political momentum here is provided by 9/11, because we're spending more on defense and people really can make the argument that we have to spend it the right way.

All right, thank you all very much.