August 25, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Bad Breaks

Americans - can't live with them, can't live without them. That just about sums up the response of Europeans to President Bush's announcement last week before a gathering of Veterans of Foreign Wars that his administration intends to reconfigure American troop deployments abroad in a second term and bring a significant number home to bases in the United States.

The fact is of course that our allies abroad like nothing better than to gripe and moan about American foreign policy and military superiority -- from the safety of the umbrella provided by the very same American military. This is a distinctly unhealthy attitude, and it has contributed to the deterioration of relationships within U.S. military alliances.

In Europe, particularly, there is still little understanding on the fact that the world changed three years ago, on September 11. Americans tend to be viewed as obsessive about security and irrational if they continue to support the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Europe is in an inward-looking mode, debating the selection of EU commissioners, the pros and cons of the Euro and the future of the European Constitution. There is almost no sense that elsewhere in the world, a great, historic struggle is taking place between terrorists inspired by radical Islam and the forces of Western civilization.

In light of that prolonged struggle, however, the U.S. government is looking at redeployments, During the Cold War, we knew our adversaries and our potential battlefields. Today's dangers are far less predictable and far more diffuse. New transformational technologies came of age during the 1990s, which have changed the way the U.S. military fights. The global war on terrorism has changed where it fights. Mobility and speed are of the essence, as is a more flexible base structure, which takes advantage of new strategic facts, including the entry of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO.

At present, the United States has more than 200,000 troops stationed overseas. Of them, 116,000 are in Europe, together with 125,000 dependents, and 45,000 support personnel. Deployments are for three years, rather than on a rotational basis, and extensive civilian support structure is necessary. This arrangement is expensive, and it is outdated - and at least until Americans started to talk about leaving -- it was also quite unpopular in Germany. Environmental restrictions hampered U.S. military exercises and German farmers used to grow irate over military jets frightening their cows. And, of course, anti-Americanism was at such levels two years ago that Chancellor Schroeder won a hotly contested election by playing this unsavory card.

As announced by President Bush, up to 70,000 American troops will be brought home to bases here in the United States and with them 100,000 dependents, mainly from Germany. This will mean significant savings. It will also mean less time spent abroad during a typical military career, and less disruption for military families, while allowing more flexible deployments. The decision has already been made to bring redeploy some 4,000 troops from South Korea, where a rotational structure has been the norm.

Not even the New York Times editorial page, which lost no time denouncing the Bush plan could fine fault with the reasoning behind it. "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 . . . . such sensible steps aimed at raising morale and encouraging re-enlistments are welcome." And yet, the newspaper writes, "overall, this plan marches in the wrong direction. Instead of reflecting and reinforcing America's core alliances, the new plan dilutes them."

It is true that the deployments of millions of Americans in Germany throughout the Cold War in many cases created a special bond between the two countries. Yet, it clearly also could create tensions. What should happen at this point is that the redeployment plan may force a rebalancing of our alliances in a way that could in the long run persuade our allies to take responsibility for more of their own defense needs. The notion that a country as wealthy as Germany should spend a mere one percent of its national income on defense is insane - and the disparity fosters a lack of understanding.

What the U.S. administration needs to do now, as it proceeds with its plans, is to explain itself properly and clearly to the countries and communities affected. Too often, unfortunately, that side of diplomacy has been neglected in the Bush administration. Clearly, redeployment should happen out of strategic necessity, not an alleged vindictiveness over political differences, and nobody should be left in any doubt about that.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times