TCS Daily

Withdrawing U.S. Forces: A Good Start

By Doug Bandow - August 24, 2004 12:00 AM

President George W. Bush has proposed bringing home about one-third of U.S. troops stationed in Asia and Europe. It's a good start, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.

The administration shouldn't just plan on pulling back 60,000 or 70,000 troops (along with their families and support staff), and do so over the next decade. Washington should withdraw all 230,000 service personnel guarding against phantom enemies in Europe and protecting well-heeled friends in East Asia. And the U.S. should begin withdrawing them now, rather than in 2006, and finish in two or three years, rather than in ten.

From World War II through the Cold War, America was forced to adopt the role of global guardian. The enemies of freedom were obvious and dangerous: Nazism, fascism, and communism.

As President Ronald Reagan observed, the Soviet Union was an evil empire. The U.S. had little choice but to confront a succession of monstrous tyrannies backed by ample militaries.

However, the Cold War ended more than a decade ago. The Berlin Wall, the ultimate symbol of communist totalitarian, now seems but a hazy memory. Now America's friends face few conventional threats and are capable of defending themselves.

Yet Washington retains its extensive network of commitments, bases, and garrisons created to contain the USSR and allied powers. American troop levels have fallen, but not nearly

There is no serious military threat to Europe. Instability in the Balkans threatens to inconvenience neighboring states, not leave the continent under the control of a hegemonic antagonist.

Indeed, it is hard to spin a plausible, let alone likely, scenario involving Europe that threatens American security. An invasion of, say, Germany by Martians is about as likely as by Russians.

In East Asia the dangers are more real, with North Korea making threatening noises. But the South has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. South Korea can outmatch any military fielded by Pyongyang.

Japan understandably looks at China with some unease, but Tokyo should construct a defensive force capable of deterring Chinese adventurism. Tokyo's neighbors prefer defense by America, but World War II is 60 years in the past. The U.S. has no obligation to pacify the region forever.

Beijing could become a serious rival of America; it is not likely to challenge the U.S. directly, however. Taiwan is the most obvious potential flashpoint, but no sane president would inaugurate a ground war with China. Thus, neither an army division in South Korea nor a Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan would perform any useful role in any conflict.

Still, critics contend, having troops nearby would better enable the U.S. to intervene in some future crisis. But most potential conflicts, whether in the Balkans or Southeast Asia or the Caucasus, would not warrant American involvement.

Moreover, allies often limit Washington's options. France would not even grant overflight rights to Washington to retaliate against Libya for the Berlin disco bombing.

Seoul and Tokyo would be unlikely to allow Washington to use their bases in a war with China, at least unless they were directly attacked. After all, neither wants to become a permanent enemy of the People's Republic.

Finally, changing technology has reduced the value of propinquity. As President Bush observed, our forces are "more agile and more lethal, they're better able to strike anywhere in the world over great distances on short notice."

The U.S. can use precision weapons to strike from American territory or international waters; quickly insert special forces for covert action or cooperation with allied forces; and bring naval air power to bear without land bases. A major conflict like that in Iraq would require an extended build-up, irrespective of where the forces were located.

In contrast, the benefits of withdrawing are obvious. As the President observed: "our service members will have more time on the home front, and more predictability and fewer moves over a career. Our military spouses will have fewer job changes, greater stability, more time for their kids and to spend with their families at home. The taxpayers will save money, as we configure our military to meet the threats of the 21st century. There will be savings as we consolidate and close bases and facilities overseas no longer needed to face the threats of our time and defend the peace."

One of the most important virtues of drawing down unnecessary foreign garrisons is to reduce the pressure on personnel resulting from the unexpectedly difficult and long occupation of Iraq. Roughly 40 percent of the 140,000 troops now stationed in Iraq are Reserve or National Guard.

No matter how patriotic soldiers are, they will not reenlist if they fear spending most of their lives abroad. The burden falls particularly heavily on members of the Guard and Reserve, who leave their jobs as well as families and often face career disruptions and severe economic hardships.

President Bush also contended that his proposal "will strengthen our alliances around the world, while we build new partnerships to better preserve the peace." Actually, pulling out troops would not improve existing relationships, which is perhaps the only sensible point made by his critics.

For instance, former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke complained of "the message that this administration continues to operate in a unilateral manner without adequately consulting its closest allies." That's certainly the attitude in foreign capitals.

Explains Holbrooke: "the Germans are very unhappy about these withdrawals. The Koreans are going to be equally unhappy." No one wants Washington to trim America's defense gravy train.

A few officials in Asia might actually fear for their security. Some Europeans complain that the Bush administration is retaliating for their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

However, most critics most worry about the economic impact on local communities that now benefit from the presence of American forces. Wuerzburg city spokesman Ole Kruse explained that "Base closures would hit us very hard." Peter Lang, mayor of Baumholder, said: "The town would bleed to death."

Washington's response should be, so what? Proposals for drawing down U.S. forces were made long before the Iraq war and are justified by changing strategic realities, whatever the Bush administration's private intentions.

Moreover, Americans aren't responsible for making Germans and Koreans happy. In particular, the economic health of small German villages is a problem for Berlin, not Washington, which has the U.S. economy to consider.

Even some American devotees of the status quo complain that the nation's defenses will suffer. Charged Wesley Clark, who commanded President Bill Clinton's war on Serbia and now supports Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry: the move would "significantly undermine U.S. national security." Holbrooke called the proposal "pretty alarming."

But even if trans-Atlantic ties loosened, the U.S. would be better off. America's alliances are largely security black holes, with Washington doing the defending and allies doing the carping. Withdrawal would force friendly states to take on full responsibility for their own defense, which would significantly enhance U.S. security.

Why should Americans patrol Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, which are of only peripheral interest to Europe, and of no concern to the U.S.? Japan should take on a front-line role in deterring potential Chinese adventurism. Why does Washington treat populous and prosperous South Korea as a perpetual defense dependent?

However, the Bush proposal only makes sense if the troops come home. They should not be based in different countries -- Central and Eastern Europe or Australia, for instance, or worse yet, in Central Asia. The core threat against American security interests today is terrorism. Stationing troops in Poland or Australia would no more help destroy terrorist groups than has keeping forces in Germany or South Korea.

More troops should be brought home more quickly from Asia and Europe. U.S. forces, now at 140,000, must be withdrawn from Iraq as well. Continuing American participation in civil strife and guerrilla war creates more antagonism and encourages more terrorism at the cost of more body bags coming home.

Washington must accelerate the creation of a viable Iraqi government and security force, and get out. Baghdad's future must be decided by Iraqis.

America's overall security environment has changed dramatically over the last two decades. America's combat troop requirement has changed dramatically over the last two years.

President Bush recognizes that the status quo is untenable. His plan should be but the opening move towards full disengagement.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America's Troubled Relations With North and South Korea (forthcoming from Palgrave/Macmillan).


TCS Daily Archives