Finally, some thoughtful insight from a congressional panel

WASHINGTON—Congressional and presidential commissions are often appointed to study problems everyone wishes would just go away, or die of old age, and often in the end entire tracts of timberland are sacrificed to print long, dull volumes full of not very much.

But once in a blue moon along comes a commission that believes its creators really wanted it to provide both constructive criticism and some recommendations on how to find a reasonable solution to a problem or a situation.

One such happy event occurred this week when the congressional commission appointed to study a Pentagon proposal to shut down most of America's overseas military bases and bring home 70,000 U.S. troops and their families opened its mouth and made some sense.

Even as communities all across the nation braced for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's hit list of domestic military bases he wants to shut down, the Overseas Basing Commission in an interim report to Congress and President Bush suggested that the rush to close our overseas bases be immediately slowed and all the ramifications considered.

Many permanent U.S. military bases overseas would be shut down and replaced by forward operating sites in remote places such as Uzbekistan—bare-bones establishments maintained by contractors or the host countries. Those sites, some consisting of no more than a barren airfield, could in theory be swiftly occupied by troops and equipment flown in from the United States in case of a crisis.

The Department of Defense has estimated the cost of this shift at approximately $10 billion for items directly attributable to bringing the troops back home and finding new home bases for their units. The Overseas Basing Commission said that an independent cost analysis it ordered put the actual cost at around $20 billion.

It pointedly noted that spending estimates aren't the only thing off with the Pentagon plans. The commission said the action proposed by Defense "is larger than just the Department of Defense," has ramifications that will effect U.S. strategy and national security for decades to come, and should be open to careful review by other government departments and agencies most affected.

The commission also urged Congress to hold hearings and "provide more rigorous oversight" of the Defense basing proposal, even as the plans are reviewed by other departments, including State, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, Commerce, Treasury, the National Intelligence Director, and the Office of Budget and Management.

"The detailed synchronization of so massive a realignment of forces requires that the pace of events be slowed and re-ordered," the Overseas Basing Commission members wrote in their interim report.

That the report trampled on toes in the Defense Department can be inferred from the briefing hastily convened a day after the commission news conference this week. Defense Under Secretary for Policy Ryan Henry and acting Under Secretary of the Army Ray Dubois took issue with parts of the commission report.

Henry said the pullback from overseas bases has been "coordinated from the beginning" with the State Department, the National Security Council and other areas of government, while Congress has been briefed "more than 45 times" on the emerging plan.

Henry also challenged the idea that the shutdown, planned between 2006 and 2011, was moving too quickly. He said Defense was being "deliberate, thoughtful and flexible," and the plan was subject to change as the world situation evolves.

The commission members urged that at least one heavy Army brigade should be left in Europe, and equipment for another heavy brigade pre-positioned aboard ships in the theater to provide greater flexibility.

The report also expressed reservations as to whether Defense has given sufficient thought to the additional requirements that troop deployments from the United States to forward bases will place on already overtaxed Air Force transport aircraft and crews.

Making such a radical change in our overseas posture at a time when the American military is already fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terrorism and is stretched to the max could lead to costly miscalculations both tactically and strategically.

The OBC commissioners did not argue with Rumsfeld's basic premise that our network of overseas military bases was originally keyed to Cold War objectives and needs to be realigned to support current and future needs.

They are just asking that the problem, and suggested solution, be more carefully considered and the rush to enact those changes be slowed while that thinking is done.

The OBC, meanwhile, promised a final report sometime in August.

Congress and the American people just may get their money's worth out of this commission.


(The OBC's report, summary of major conclusions and recommendations, and statement of chairman Al Cornella can be found at: www.obc.gov)



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young