Global Policy Forum

15 Years After Cold War, A Troop Shift


By Peter Grier and Faye Bowers

Christian Science Monitor
August 17, 2004

President would bring 70,000 troops home from Europe and Asia - a major step in the post-cold-war revamp of US military.

President Bush's announcement that the US will withdraw 70,000 troops from Europe and Asia represents a long-awaited major adjustment of the American military following the cold war's end. It's true that the Pentagon has shuttered dozens of big installations in Europe over the past decade, but US world troop deployments still basically reflect a pattern designed to contain a communist threat that no longer exists, analysts say.

The sensitivities of allies, plus the military's traditional resistance to organizational change, have contributed to the persistence of the US presence overseas. The strain of the US deployments in Iraq - plus the pressures of presidential politics, and the simple passage of time - may have finally broken that resistance. "I think overall it's a good idea," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military strategy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's good to think strategically about where our forces are, and why."

Currently the US has about 100,000 troops based in Europe, with about 70 percent of those in Germany. Another 100,000 are scattered throughout Asia and the Pacific, with heavy concentrations in Japan and South Korea. Over the next decade about 70,000 of those uniformed personnel will be transferred to other home bases, mostly back in the United States, Bush said Monday in a speech to veterans in the swing state of Ohio. Another 100,000 dependents and civilian employees will be similarly relocated.

Carried to conclusion, this restructuring would represent the largest shift in the footprint of the US military since the Korean War, note administration officials. It would also go some way toward fulfilling a goal Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has long pushed: making the US military a leaner, potentially faster-moving machine. Under this strategy, the US would rely more heavily on flexible units based in the US that can move quickly to bare-bones "lily pad" bases that are closer to potential trouble spots than today's mammoth structures in Western Europe.

The long-term changes "will help us strengthen our ability to confront the new dangers that we face," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan Monday. Administration spokesmen cautioned that the changes will take time, and that the US public shouldn't expect Fort Hood in Texas to soon begin absorbing thousands of GIs flooding off airlifters with all their worldly possessions.

Indeed, in that sense the Bush administration appears to be simply associating itself with an action that might not begin in earnest until well into the next presidential term. And while Bush officials insisted that this effort is much broader than the troop-shuffling related to Iraq deployments, the strain of maintaining 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has surely focused Pentagon minds on a more efficient force structure, note analysts.

If nothing else, it's obvious that the big US infrastructure in Europe is located far from the Middle East's crescent of conflict. "There was going to be some shifting anyway, but that has been given impetus by the Iraq situation," says Michael Corgan, a retired Navy officer and professor of international relations at Boston University.

The cold war ended some 15 years ago, and the Pentagon has certainly made changes in its deployment structure since then. Over the past 10 years, the Department of Defense has closed 560 installations in Europe alone, according to a July report on military infrastructure by the US Government Accountability Office (until recently known as the General Accounting Office).

But the US still has 702 foreign military installations, plus its 200,000 deployed troops, notes the report. It's conclusion: the US military is still organized around cold war concepts. The US has delayed major readjustments in recent years in part due to the sensitivity of allies. Neither Germany nor South Korea have been entirely happy about potential withdrawals, for instance.

But Asian deployments in particular are overdue for a sweeping restructure, notes Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings. The US needs the troops in Asia to help with Iraqi deployments - and in some areas, such as Japan, domestic opposition to the US presence keeps going up and up. The US "can carry this out more quickly in East and Central Asia than in Europe, but the logic works better if you announce it under one strategic concept," says O'Hanlon.

The idea of redeployment to better reflect strategic reality is a good one, and planning for such a change has been going on for some time. But the timing of the announcement is still questionable, according to some other analysts. President Bush is in essence laying claim to something that began under the Clinton administration and will end under the next president, even if Bush wins reelection, says Michele Flournoy, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That means a sensitive national security issue may now become a matter of debate during a heated campaign. "That's problematic in the sense that any fundamental redeployment of US troops has to be something that is fully supported by a bipartisan consensus," says Flournoy, who was a defense official under President Clinton. Nor is it clear how much the administration has consulted with the allies who will be affected by the changes, notes Flournoy.

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