Daily MoJo: Withdrawal Symptoms

The Pentagon rethinks its commitments in South Korea and Germany.

| Thu Jun. 10, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won re-election in 2002 by tapping into anti-American sentiments and denouncing the invasion of Iraq. South Korean president-elect Roh Hoo Myun followed suit this past spring, winning his own election after vowing never to "kowtow" to the United States. Both leaders have softened their rhetoric of late, courting President Bush and trying to make amends. But old wounds heal slowly, and with the Pentagon making plans to withdraw its troops from both Germany and South Korea, our old allies may now find themselves drifting even further away from Washington.

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On Tuesday, US and South Korean officials announced that American troops would be moved away from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. By the end of 2005, the US hopes to withdraw 12,500 of its 37,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea, a figure that includes the 3,600 troops in the 2nd Infantry Division who are scheduled for re-deployment in Iraq. This shift comes after a recent announcement that the US will consider removing 40,000 personnel from bases in Germany.

Editorials across East Asia struck a note of consternation over the news. The Korea Times lamented, "It seems the half-century strong military alliance between Seoul and Washington has rapidly crumbled to an irreparable level in recent days." According to The Korean Herald, public reaction is no less despondent, as many South Koreans "are now questioning the half-century-old military alliance." In Germany, the media is still awaiting final word on the withdrawal plans, but as with South Korea, the pull-out of US troops could well strike a symbolic blow to a fifty-year-old alliance.

The Pentagon announcements should not come as a shock. As reported last year by The Washington Post, the Bush administration has been envisioning a realignment of forces for some time now. The idea is to pare down America's big, clunky military bases--the US presently has 387,000 troops stationed abroad in more than 130 countries overseas--and to construct in their place a series of "staging areas," with minimal permanent facilities, in strategic locations across the globe. Light forces stationed within the US could be quickly trained and deployed to these staging areas as the need arises. Andy Hoehn, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy--and the architect of the realignment--explained to the Post the need for the strategic shift:

"If there is a terrorist training camp somewhere and we come to understand that there is something we can do militarily, we don't have a month to do it," Hoehn said. "We certainly don't have six months to do it. We may only have hours to do it."

In theory, the shift to a "power projection" force allows the US to respond more efficiently to low-intensity crises across the globe, without the need to maintain cumbersome, unwieldy bases. The Pentagon also hopes to avoid the political hassles that can surround large bases abroad: the former military base in Saudi Arabia famously drew the ire of Osama bin Laden, and soldier misconduct (including manslaughter and rape) in both Okinawa and Seoul have sparked protests in those regions.

The realignment also reflects a shift away from Cold War geopolitical realities. No longer does the US need a sprawling system of heavily-staffed military bases to deter a Soviet invasion of Europe or Asia. The new security agenda will focus on responding to potential low-intensity threats such as terrorism in a number of vital regions. The Wall Street Journal, (subscription) reporting on Rumsfeld's recent visit to Singapore, gave some indication of America's new regional concerns:

U.S. officials are concerned about the vulnerability of the waterway between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, which is a trade route for China, Japan, Korea and Singapore and a pass-through point for half of the world's oil…. In March, Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, the top U.S. officer in the Pacific, told U.S. lawmakers he was weighing putting U.S. Marines aboard high-speed vessels in the strait to interdict potential terrorists and smugglers.

The Pentagon has also eyed Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia nations like Uzbekistan as potential locations for new bases.

In the long run, the US quite obviously needs to shift away from obsolete deployment strategies. Our far-flung military is already overstretched, and as Nicholas Confessore reported in a must-read article from last year, the military has long been struggling with an outdated organizational system:

The more missions the military has, the more it has to move around, reassemble, and retrain its soldiers. And instead of fighting one big war or two medium-sized wars, today's military has lately been charged with lots of minor operations, known as small-scale contingencies, and the occasional medium-sized one, like the upcoming war in Iraq. Even the small-scale contingencies are no picnic. ...

[M]any soldiers are primarily trained and organized for battles that will never occur, which means that they must constantly be trained for their actual missions as well, like patrolling Croat neighborhoods in Brcko, and then trained back again to prepare for their theoretical missions, such as battling hordes of Soviet tanks smashing through the Fulda Gap. Perversely, the current system produces units that simultaneously train more and are less ready.

The new system could well reduce the strain on soldiers abroad and, if done correctly, allow the US to develop more specialized and capable peacekeeping units.

Moreover, the heavy commitment abroad, coupled with the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, have depleted the rolls of the National Guard, provoking concerns about our ability to deal with domestic emergencies such as fires, floods, and earthquakes. Pulling back troops to within our borders would help alleviate these pressures.

But before policymakers get too giddy, they should note that plenty of problems linger. As Kurt Campbell, a senior vice president at CSIS, said last year, "You just can't throw the dice like this without an enormous amount of pre-planning, most of which has not been done." If they're not careful, the Bush administration's penchant for hasty planning and its brazen disregard of America's allies could once again hurt the country's long-term interests. Already, the strains are being felt at NATO:

Montgomery Meigs, a retired general and the former head of Army forces in Europe, said substantial reductions in American troops in Europe could limit the opportunities to train with NATO's new East European members and other allies. While American forces can still be sent for exercises from the United States, he said, it will be more difficult and costly to do so.

"You will never sustain the level of engagement from the United States that you can from Europe," he said.

In a grim irony, this potential breakdown in coordination is beginning to loom large right as President Bush is pleading for an increased NATO presence in Iraq.

In the Korean peninsula, even graver problems could emerge from a serious U.S. disengagement. South Korean leaders now worry that North Korea will smell blood in the water, leading to more aggressive posturing by the North and an overall escalation of tensions on the peninsula. This point is not easily dismissed. While it is true that South Korea can capably defend herself from a Northern invasion with modest tactical support, the presence of US troops has always provided an overwhelming deterrent against war. Even more crucially: what happens if the North Korean state collapses due to internal structural rot? The ensuing chaos would demand a massive intervention to prevent a serious humanitarian and refugee crisis. The Pentagon has not yet publicly addressed these concerns: Could the U.S. really manage this crisis from a couple of skimpy, "forward looking" bases? And what if China decides to move in? A good number of fears need assuaging before the U.S. simply backs away from its longtime allies.

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