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Over There Is Where We Need to Be, Militarily : Pacific Rim: 'Forward forces' overseas are not just crisis-ready; they also promote U.S. interests.

May 24, 1993|CHARLES R. LARSON | Adm. Charles R. Larson, based in Honolulu, is commander in chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. and

"What's in it for us?"

As the terrors of the Cold War fade from memory and we tailor a smaller military to the new challenges of a new era, some persuasive voices have challenged our continued troop deployments overseas. Why, they ask, should the American people continue to maintain a "forward presence" with military forces beyond our borders?

The answer, as I see it in the Asia-Pacific theater, is that a modest forward presence serves America's interests. The benefits are greater than most think. The cost is less than most believe. And the dangers that would develop if we left are greater than many realize.

Why Asia? Because we must not ignore the future. Two-thirds of the world's people live in this region. The largest and fastest-growing markets for our exports are there, along with the largest deposits of untapped resources. Even as the world's economy has been slowing, key Asian nations continue to grow at rates twice that of most developed states. If we want to benefit economically from this gathering momentum, we must participate as a full and enthusiastic partner.

Why a military presence as part of our regional partnership? Because our program of bilateral military relationships works. The military occupies an influential place in many Asian-Pacific societies, and our presence forges a special bond with those regional leaders. Without colonial baggage or territorial aspirations, the United States has both the capability and the credibility to play the "honest broker," promoting a stable environment where we can trade and prosper. Does that require military forces? Let's not kid ourselves--it does. No diplomatic note, no political mission, no economic commission can convey the same clear message of commitment as a visible military presence.

But why can't we do the same thing from the United States? If we want to engage the people of Asia, influence the way they think, promote our values among their leaders and secure our interests in their region, then we have to join them where they live. Being there promotes confidence in our treaties and our word. Being there encourages their cooperation in a crisis. Being there improves our own readiness, shortening our deployment time when the moment for action arrives. And most important, being there deters aggressors before our interests are threatened and we are forced to respond.

But why do we have to pay so much for so many forces overseas? The answer is threefold:

* First, our forward forces are not that large. In this entire half of the world, we have about 80,000 personnel stationed outside U.S. territory. That's about 6% of the total stationed at home.

* Second, it's not that expensive. We pay the same for personnel and equipment wherever they are, so the major additional cost of stationing overseas is for establishing, operating and maintaining facilities. As South Korea's economy has grown, that nation has shouldered an increasing share of this cost and will soon be paying more than 30%. With its much larger economy, Japan has agreed to pay almost 75% and has built us some of the best facilities in the world. This makes it cheaper to maintain a carrier battle group in Japan than at home. And we would have to replace our one carrier in Japan with at least three on the West Coast to maintain the same forward presence in northeast Asia.

* Finally, there is no free lunch. Maintaining international leadership and the freedom to shape the future to our advantage is expensive. We can save a few dollars and retreat to impoverished isolation or play a leading role in an increasingly prosperous Asia, but we can't have it both ways.

Which brings us to the question everyone should be asking about forward presence: What if we stop? The widespread disorder in the rest of the world suggests that if we don't provide the central, visible, stabilizing force in the Pacific, someone else surely will, and probably not in the same benign way.

With elimination of our forward forces would go our flexibility to send a message by fine-tuning our presence short of war. Our access reduced, our influence dissipated, our ability to rally a coalition gone, we would be reduced to two choices in a crisis: inaction or dispatching a force from U.S. soil--hollow words or a punch in the nose.

So what do we get for our money? We get a chance to shape, to direct, to encourage and to promote a world consistent with our values and our interests. We get a chance to prevent the ugly scramble for advantage and naked self-interest that would surely follow our withdrawal; a chance to preclude a violent challenge to our interests that might draw us into conflict unwilling and unprepared, as happened three times in this region in the past 50 years. And we get a chance to compete, to participate as a legitimate member of the dynamic Pacific community.

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