Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Misconceived Military Shuffle

August 17, 2004

The troop redeployment plan announced yesterday by President Bush makes little long-term strategic sense. It is certain to strain crucial alliances, increase overall costs and dangerously weaken deterrence on the Korean peninsula at the worst possible moment. Meanwhile, it will do nothing to address the military's most pressing current need: relieving the chronic strain on ground forces that has resulted from failing to anticipate the long, and largely unilateral, American occupation of Iraq.

Mr. Bush provided few new details yesterday, confirming only that over the next 10 years, about 60,000 to 70,000 uniformed troops, along with some 100,000 family members and civilian employees, would be transferred from bases and other military installations in Europe and Asia to the United States.

It has been known for some time that the Pentagon wants to pull back perhaps half of the roughly 70,000 soldiers now in Germany and a third of the nearly 40,000 troops in South Korea. Further cuts in Europe and Asia will be needed to reach Mr. Bush's totals, especially since some of those withdrawn from South Korea may be headed toward other parts of Asia.

The Bush administration justifies these movements by pointing to fundamental changes in the geography of threats since the end of the cold war. In Asia, however, that geography has not changed all that much.

The most dangerous threat still comes from North Korea, which is now thought to be building nuclear weapons. At a time when negotiating a halt to that buildup is imperative, Washington has inexplicably granted Pyongyang something it has long coveted - a reduction in American troop levels - instead of building those reductions into a bargaining proposal requiring constructive North Korean moves in return. The Korean pullback also sends a dangerous signal to the North that America is devaluing its alliance with South Korea.

In Europe, the withdrawals are less immediately dangerous, but they will be expensive because Germany pays a hefty share of the costs for the American military bases located there.

While sending military personnel back to Kansas or Colorado may avert some base closings and make local politicians happy, it will cost the taxpayers money. Furthermore, the military will also lose the advantage that comes with giving large numbers of its men and women the experience of living in other cultures.

The administration seems to be planning to establish new installations in Eastern Europe, but they are more likely to be used for occasional exercises than as permanent bases. An increased presence in Eastern Europe is fine, but it need not come at the expense of our German bases. Although it is certainly true that American troops no longer have to sit in Germany to protect Western Europe from the Red Army, many of today's battlefields, like Iraq and Afghanistan, are in fact closer to Germany than they are to the United States.

The Pentagon is right to stress lighter, more mobile Army brigades. It is also good to aim to reduce the number of job and location changes in a typical Army career. With the huge personnel demands of Iraqi operations forcing repeated tours, extended tours and involuntary callbacks, such sensible steps aimed at raising morale and encouraging re-enlistments are welcome. But over all, this plan marches in the wrong direction. Instead of reflecting and reinforcing America's core alliances, the new plan dilutes them.

Despite the Pentagon's denials, it seems deliberate that the two largest withdrawals have been proposed for countries that the Bush administration has had serious differences with in recent years, over Iraq in the German case, and over negotiating strategy with North Korea in the case of Seoul. Both countries have been working hard to patch up relations - South Korea is one of the few American allies with troops in Iraq - but the Pentagon does not seem interested in reciprocating.