RALEIGH — With Thursday’s news of a significant lobbying blitz planned by North Carolina’s politicians to protect the state’s military bases from future budget cuts, now might be a good time to caution against taking their argument too far.
I’m not saying that Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and other elected officials speaking out about the issue have overstated their case yet. But some of the rhetoric I’ve seen about the economic impact of the Army base at Ft. Bragg, the Air Force bases at Seymour Johnson and Pope, the Coast Guard installation at Elizabeth City, the Army’s ammunition depot at Southport, the Army Corps of Engineers office in Wilmington, and the Marine and Naval facilities at Camp Lejeune, New River, and Cherry Point has come close to suggesting that North Carolina’s military establishment is indistinguishable from other industrial sectors that public officials should take steps to protect and nurture.
Sure, there are hundreds of thousands of employees directly or indirectly drawing paychecks from these facilities. But the armed services of the United States do not exist to provide jobs or promote economic development. The Pentagon should never make the decision about where to train, supply, and base its forces with respect to economic consequences.
It is the responsibility of President George W. Bush, Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld, and congressional leaders to make staffing and basing recommendations that make the best possible use of the tax dollars devoted to our national defense — one of the few constitutional and legitimate roles of the federal government, I might add. To the extent that past pork-barrel corruption has wasted scarce defense dollars on obsolete or unnecessary bases around the country, the damage isn’t just expressed in financial terms. It exists in military terms, as well.
The proper argument for defending North Carolina’s installations, then, must center around their military usefulness. As it turns out, the largest facilities — Bragg (and nearby Pope) and Lejeune (and nearby Cherry Point and New River) — are integral parts of the nation’s war-fighting capability. Some might argue that Goldsboro’s Seymour Johnson AFB is of lesser importance, but there is persuasive evidence to the contrary. The point is, this is the appropriate decision rule for downsizing the nation’s military infrastructure: what is the most efficient mix of units and bases to provide the maximum degree of flexibility, firepower, and global reach for a given expenditure of tax dollars.
Furthermore, if lobbying by state and local officials has a chance of swaying the outcome of future rounds of Pentagon base closings, then we as a nation have a serious problem. The process should be as free from political influence as possible, conducted as previous rounds have been done through a commission whose merit-based recommendations can only be voted up or down, never amended by lawmakers.
Again, I understand the sentiment behind North Carolina’s efforts to avoid the economic consequences of losing a military facility. Given the recent performance of the state’s economy, there’s not a lot of slack left in the rope. But the federal government builds and maintains military facilities for the ultimate purpose of defending our country and incapacitating or killing our enemies. No priority should be higher when deciding how to spend the Pentagon budget.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.