Secretary Gates, counting the hours until he's sprung from his five-sided dungeon, warned senators on Wednesday about the risks involved with closing U.S. bases overseas as part of potential cuts to the defense budget. For one thing, he said, it would probably cost money upfront, as opposed to saving it, to build headquarters and barracks and other facilities in the U.S. to house the troops who now live in Europe. For another, it might send a dangerous message:
"What kind of signal to do you want to send the rest of the world, as far as America's role in the world?" Gates asked. "At the same time as we're cutting the defense budget, we cut State's budget, and State has fewer assets to deploy aboard, we have fewer assets to deploy aboard -- are we basically sending the message to the rest of the world, to China, Iran, North Korea, a variety of others ... that the U.S. is closing up shop and going home and headed toward Fortress America again?"
Not only would that have a chilling effect around the globe, Gates said, he argued that the American military bases in Europe have actually helped stem the trend of diminished NATO usefulness that he famously warned about last week.
"Our presence in Europe, one of the benefits it has brought -- in addition to the fiscal benefit of having troops rotate from Germany to Afghanistan -- one thing is has brought, is it has slowed, I think, this deterioration of NATO military capabilities," Gates said.
Is that because European troops need to maintain a certain level of proficiency to keep pace with the Americans? asked Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland. Absolutely, Gates said.
"We train with them, we work with them, so they have to have capabilities to match us when we're doing that," he said.
Whatever you think of Gates' arguments on foreign basing, his warnings appeared to add another bullet point to his list of things that DoD must keep -- along with the now-familiar litany that includes the F-35, the KC-46A, Army and Marine Corps recapitalization, SSBN(X). At this rate, it's getting difficult to see what things Gates would be all right with losing. Fortunately for him, with only 15 more days on the job, he won't be around to have to figure that out.
What do you think -- is Gates right?