Time To Clear the Board

U.S. troop realignment: a good start


President Bush's announcement about reducing U.S. troop deployments in Europe and South Korea by as many as 70,000 soldiers is a long overdue decision. As Bush said: "The world has changed a great deal, and our posture must change with it." But the Pentagon has emphasized that "this is not a troop cut or a force structure reduction in the armed forces. It is a realignment globally of U.S. forces and capabilities." In other words, it's simply rearranging pieces on the chessboard. But the 21st century military threat environment and the limited need for conventional U.S. military forces against the al Qaeda threat demands removing pieces from the chessboard.

The Cold War is over and Europe no longer faces the threat of Soviet tanks rolling across the Fulda Gap. And the combined economies of the European countries are healthy and strong enough for Europeans to pay for their own security requirements. In 2003, the EU's GDP was $11.6 trillion and U.S. GDP was $10.9 trillion, but America spent 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense compared to only 1.5 percent for the Europeans.

The North Korean threat to South Korea remains real but, like the Europeans, the South Koreans can afford to pay for their own defense. According to the CIA, "North Korea, one of the world's most centrally planned and isolated economies, faces desperate economic conditions." North Korea's GDP in 2003 was $22.9 billion with defense spending of $5.2 billion (22.7 percent of GDP). By comparison, South Korea's GDP was $855.3 billion (more that 37 times that of the North) with $14.5 billion for defense (almost three times the North and only 1.7 percent of GDP). So South Korea has both the economic advantage and capacity to to defend itself.

Democrats were quick to criticize the president. According to retired General Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme commander and presidential candidate, the decision would "significantly undermine U.S. national security." But with the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no threat to U.S. security in Europe, and North Korea hardly qualifies as a threat when military capabilities are compared. The United States outspends North Korea 80-to-1 and the U.S. military is the most modern and well-equipped in the world compared to North Korean forces that have older Chinese and former Soviet equipment.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke, said: "I know the Germans are very unhappy about these withdrawals. The Koreans are going to be equally unhappy." But U.S. military forces do not exist to make friends and allies happy. They exist to defend the United States against external military threats. If those threats no longer exist, then the requirement to deploy those forces is also non-existent.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for criticism. To begin, the U.S. military is not completely withdrawing from either Europe or South Korea. But if the threats don't warrant the need for U.S. forces in either of those countries, then all of the troops should be brought home. And in an act of legerdemain, although two Army divisions in Germany will return to the United States, a Stryker brigade (built around the Army's new smaller, lighter combat vehicle instead of heavy armor) will be going to Germany in their stead. The Pentagon admits that "a substantial U.S. military ground presence will remain in Germany." But keeping troops there defies the reason behind removing them in the first place.

President Bush claims that the plan to realign troops "will help us fight and win…wars of the 21st century." But the war facing the United States is against the al Qaeda terrorist threat and the spreading radical Islamist extremism it inspires. Large-scale conventional military operations will be the exception rather than the rule in the war against al Qaeda. In fact, special forces—not regular units—will play the greater role in finding and destroying al Qaeda. So maintaining a large military is not necessary for the war on terrorism.

It's worth remembering that the globally deployed U.S. military was not an effective defense or deterrent against 19 suicide hijackers on September 11. The hard truth is that most of the war on terrorism—fought in 60 or more countries around the globe, many of them friends and allies of the United States—will be waged through unprecedented international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation.

In the final analysis, removing 70,000 U.S. troops from Germany and South Korea is the right thing to do. But like the proverbial joke about the demise of 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea, it's just a good start.