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Just say no to base closings now

President Clinton has turned the military base-closure process into a bad joke. It is past time to stop the shenanigans and to get serious about closing obsolete and duplicative military bases according to pragmatic policy and not political expediency.

But don't hold your breath.Honor, duty and doing the right thing have not been hallmarks of a Clinton administration plagued by too many scandals to count. There is little reason to expect anything different at this juncture. With the president calling for another round of closures -- needed for enhanced efficiency, according to military experts -- it is no surprise the Senate voted 60-40 to reject his request.

Clinton -- who never met a poll he didn't like and who governs accordingly -- undermined the process in 1996 when he attempted to protect two Air Force bases in vote-heavy California and Texas. His transparent motivations contradicted orders by a non-partisan closure commission to shut down McClellan Air Force Base in California and Kelly Air Force Base in Texas.

Political warfare ensued, with Utah's Hill Air Force Base caught in the crossfire despite being ranked ahead of the other two. The matter was resolved -- for now, at least -- last year when Hill was given a large contract for work from the closing bases. To settle the dispute, it took the Utah delegation's unearthing of an administration memo ordering Defense officials to help contractors beat HAFB and keep work in California.

How shameless -- but that's old news. What must happen now is to begin a credible plan for another round of base closings soon after Clinton leaves office in January 2000. There is a strong need to streamline military operations, especially with the costly conflict in the Balkans.

War -- and military readiness generally -- come at a stiff price. Like any other operation, the Defense Department should be fine tuned for optimum results. It is anything but that now, though the embattled closure process helped.

Once Clinton is out of office, there is hope that non-partisan objectivity could drive the effort and that it wouldn't collapse under White House pressure. There is little chance of that happening at the moment.