US President George W. Bush has proposed bringing home more than 70,000 US troops stationed in Asia and Europe. It's a good start, but remains only a start.
Washington should withdraw all 230,000 service personnel guarding against phantom enemies in Europe and protecting well-heeled friends in East Asia. And the US should begin withdrawing them now rather than in 2006, and finish in two or three years rather than in 10.
The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago. America's friends face few conventional threats and are capable of defending themselves.
An invasion of Europe by Martians is about as likely as by Russians. In East Asia, the dangers are more real. But South Korea has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Japan understandably looks at China with unease, but Tokyo should construct a defensive force capable of deterring Chinese adventurism. Taiwan is an obvious potential flashpoint, but no sane American president would inaugurate a ground war with China.
Still, critics contend, having troops nearby would better enable the US to intervene in some future crisis. But most potential conflicts, like past ones in the Balkans, 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 over Taiwan.
Finally, changing technology has reduced the value of propinquity. As Bush said, our forces are "more agile and more lethal, they're better able to strike anywhere in the world over great distances on short notice." 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 Bush said: "our service members will have more time on the home front, and more predictability and fewer moves over a career. ... The taxpayers will save money as we configure our military to meet the threats of the 21st century."
Drawing down unnecessary overseas garrisons would reduce pressure on personnel resulting from the difficult Iraqi occupation. Roughly 40 percent of the 140,000 troops now stationed in Iraq are reserve or National Guard.
Bush contended that his proposal would "strengthen our alliances around the world." Actually, pulling out troops would not improve existing relationships. Former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke complained that "the Germans are very unhappy about these withdrawals. The Koreans are going to be equally unhappy."
A few officials in Asia might actually fear for their security. Some Europeans complain that the administration is retaliating for their opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. However, critics most worry about the economic impact on local communities surrounding US bases.
Washington's response should be: so what? Proposals for drawing down US forces were made long before the Iraq war and are justified by changing strategic realities, whatever Bush's private political intentions. Americans aren't responsible for making Germans and Koreans rich. The economic health of small German villages is a problem for Berlin, not Washington. Still, some US devotees of the status quo worry about the impact of Bush's initiative. Wesley Clark, who commanded former president Bill Clinton's misbegotten war on Serbia, said the move would "significantly undermine US national security."
But even if trans-Atlantic ties loosened, the US would be better off. America's alliances are mostly security black holes, with Washington doing the defending and allies doing the carping. Withdrawal would force friendly states to take on responsibility for their own defense, which would enhance US security.
Why are Americans patrolling Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, which are of only peripheral interest to Europe and of no concern to the US? Japan should take 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 are sent home, rather than elsewhere. The core threat against American security today is terrorism, and troops in Australia or Poland would be no more relevant to destroying terrorist groups than are those in Korea or Germany.
Finally, more troops should be brought home more quickly. US forces, now at 140,000, must be withdrawn from Iraq as that nation becomes responsible for its own fate.
Bush recognizes that the status quo is untenable. His plan should be but the opening move toward full disengagement.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and a former special assistant to the late US president Ronald Reagan.
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