The Bush administration's decision to reduce the number of American soldiers stationed abroad is a belated reaction to a U.S. military deployment that has been gravely outdated since the end of the cold war, and that is poorly adapted to the current official strategic scenario. Even reduced in troop strength, the vast U.S. global military base system will remain at odds with how the world is developing.
Taking troops out of one place and moving them to another does not increase their total number. Closing German, South Korean or Okinawan bases will not send more troops to Iraq. These base closures and redeployments in any case will take years, not months.
The whole question of America's worldwide base system remains sadly confused by ideology and vested interest. Why should U.S. troops still be in Germany? Germany is under no threat. But why should forces be moved to Poland or Romania instead? Neither of those countries is tangibly threatened.
The political climate is easier in Poland or Romania, and bases there undoubtedly are cheaper to run, thanks to lower maintenance and logistical costs, but they will have to be newly built or adapted to U.S. needs.
There is also a question prompted by historical experience, as well as principle, that will eventually make trouble. Why should states under no threat, at peace with the world, have U.S. troops stationed within their borders?
When Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, was asked a few years ago about the transfer of U.S. bases to his country, he replied dryly that the Czechs had had quite enough of foreign troops in their republic.
The American bases are justified as forward deployment in the supposed global commitment of the United States to international stability. But American forces are rotated to Iraq from bases in the United States as easily as from European and Asian stations. The strain is how few troops there are, rather than where they are.
The manpower problem primarily affects reserve and National Guard forces, overly relied upon in planning the nonconscript army and not meant for prolonged deployment in a war of ideological choice rather than necessity. The regular army is severely stretched.
If the Iraq occupation and resistance go on for years - which is the conventional and necessary assumption made in the Pentagon, although possibly not the realistic one - the regular army and Marine Corps will have to be expanded, which Senator John Kerry is proposing. However, the progress of the Iraq war is discouraging enlistment, even though real (rather than official) unemployment rates are high in the United States, because of the number of young unemployed not on official rolls.
There is a political significance in the troop redeployment expected in Europe. It is thought likely to convey the message that former Communist Europe is now America's Europe - Washington's "disaggregated" Europe - and its ally in a search for influence inside the expanded European Union.
The apparently pro-U.S. political and economic bias of the new European Commission, which upsets both Paris and Berlin, is taken, by the suspicious, as evidence already of competitive alignments. But Warsaw and Bucharest - or Sofia and Tallinn - will eventually find that their essential interests are in Europe, not in North America.
There is continuing pressure to enlarge the U.S. presence in the Middle East, in order to defend Israel and American oil interests. This will be true even if the United States is "defeated" in Iraq. But that outcome - unfortunately assured, in my view - will make the Middle East an even more controversial and costly zone of action for the United States than already is the case.
The global base system rests on the assumption that it is true and useful to consider the "war on terror" as a war, and that the right way to wage it is with globally deployed armies and air forces.
That idea, in my view, is false, and potentially damaging. The evidence suggests that American bases tend to destabilize, provoking nationalist or religious resistance. This was the case in the Shah's Iran, and in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. It is the case now in Iraq.
If the war on terror is really global, then every American base in the Islamic world (and even elsewhere) is a potential generator of new terrorism. What the Pentagon sees as a global system of security bases, of a kind that was justified when there was a conventional military threat from the Soviet Union, makes little sense if the real threat of terrorism comes from people quietly installed in Manhattan, Paris or London.
What does the control of Najaf in Iraq, or the chase for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, have to do with those people? We already know that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism.
The United States needs to redeploy its forces, but in a much more profound way.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune