Taking the Stress Off Our Troops
Taking the Stress Off Our Troops
We are in a global battle against a global adversary which requires global engagement, global alliances and global action. So George W. Bush wants to bring the troops home.
Not from Iraq, mind you, where he sent too few troops on a wild goose chase for weapons of mass destruction that we haven't found; to topple an evil despot who had nothing to do with 9/11; to pacify a country without an effective plan; to deliver freedom by abusing Iraqis who were criminals but not terrorists; and now to confront a stubborn insurgency that inspires the resurgent and reconstituted global militant Islamist movement that actually threatens us.
No, the president yesterday announced plans to withdraw a significant number of forces from Old Europe, where we fought a world war 60 years ago, a regional conflict as recently as five years ago and where we built – at least until Bush got a hold of it – the most important and enduring military alliance in history. He also plans to withdraw at least 12,500 troops from the Korean Peninsula, where we fought a war 50 years ago, nearly fought a war in 1994 and which remains today – despite Bush's attempts to ignore it – far more dangerous and unpredictable than Iraq ever was.
Periodic adjustments to our strategic posture – closing bases, adjusting capabilities and moving forces – make perfect sense from a strictly U.S. point of view. In fact, the Pentagon has been reshaping its global presence since the end of the Cold War. For a global power, our overseas presence today entails only 15 percent of the active force and 12 percent of our major operating bases – hardly a Cold War legacy or burden for that matter. But there is military logic to making forces in Europe lighter, and more in line with allied capabilities. It's been long understood that the relatively small force in Korea would be significantly augmented in the event of a crisis, so the size of the permanent force is less important than the strategy behind it.
What was remarkable about yesterday's announcement – made by a commander-in-chief who has never served overseas – is how the Bush administration's moves are at odds with the stated objectives: easing the stress on our troops and military families, strengthening our alliances around the world, and saving money.
Iraq is having a devastating effect on the military. There is a breach of trust between the military and its civilian leadership, including genuine hostility between Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the top military brass. Individual soldiers, even as they do their jobs in Iraq to the best of their ability, feel betrayed – by their leaders' shifting rationale for the invasion; failure to plan or provide protective gear, and by repeated and sudden deployment extensions.
The president offered no relief to the 138,000 troops currently serving in Iraq. Any talk of a troop withdrawal – even in response to improvements in Iraq – sends "the wrong signal to the enemy." Curiously, he failed to acknowledge that removing 12,500 troops from Korea (to go to Iraq no less), where the situation continues to go from bad to worse, also sends the message to Kim Jong-Il that bad behavior pays off.
At a minimum, announcing the withdrawal of troops from the Korean peninsula removes the possibility of using the prospect of a troop withdrawal in direct negotiations, assuming, of course, that the Bush administration would adopt a strategy that goes beyond simply refusing to talk to North Korea.
The troop withdrawal from Europe, meanwhile, will undoubtedly be viewed by NATO countries as evidence of America's reduced commitment to the Atlantic alliance. NATO is the only mechanism through which the United States can encourage our European allies to increase defense expenditures, render more of their forces more readily deployable outside of Europe, and assume more of the burden in Afghanistan and potentially in Iraq. Fewer boots on the ground in Europe means less political leverage, which makes it easier for Europe to wriggle off the burden-sharing hook. Then again, for an administration that considers alliances a burden, this may be a conscious choice.
The president also suggests that this realignment will save money. The reality is much different. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will cost $7 billion before the United States sees its first $1 billion in savings. Facilities in the United States will have to be adapted to receive the two heavy divisions returning from Europe. And the United States will have to negotiate new forward operating bases in other countries that, unlike Germany, will not be able to subsidize our military presence. Any presumed long-term savings from our strategic posture realignment is dwarfed by the $144.4 billion already committed to Iraq and the $60 billion check that the Pentagon will need to cash for Iraq in early 2005.
The president obviously presented what he believes is a better strategic posture for the 21st century, but it can't compensate for a failed national security strategy.
P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the military for 26 years, including two tours in Europe, and then in senior civilian positions within the National Security Council and Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
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