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Turnabout on Troops Abroad

The proposal to reduce U.S. military presence overseas has parties switching traditional roles -- and raises new fears of unilateralism.

August 18, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The initial skirmishing over President Bush's proposal to bring home thousands of U.S. troops based in Europe and Asia spotlights the continued reshaping of the foreign policy debate provoked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the administration's response to them.

At home, the initiative has caused the two major political parties to switch positions. Democrats who long championed reducing U.S. troop commitments abroad now question the idea, while Bush is defending reductions with arguments like those Bill Clinton used against the president's father in the 1992 campaign.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the plan has triggered responses that are a reverse of concerns about troop reductions expressed during the waning years of the Cold War and its aftermath in the 1990s.

At that time, the greatest resistance to retrenching the U.S. military's foreign presence came from those who feared that such moves would lead America to withdraw from the world. Now, the proposal is evoking the greatest worry among those who think it will lead America to intervene in other countries more aggressively -- and less cooperatively.

In short, though proposals like Bush's once sparked fears of American isolationism, they now are igniting concerns about unilateralism.

"The logic has been turned around," said Tom Bentley, director of Demos, a London-based think tank. "The traditional position ... was the concern that America was withdrawing into itself. The danger is now America untethered."

The controversy over Bush's plan illustrates the shift in the foreign policy debate to a focus on how the U.S. should project its power in the world.

In the Cold War years, the level of American troops stationed abroad was often seen as a key sign of whether the U.S. would remain actively involved in maintaining global stability or would retreat to concentrate on domestic needs.

After the terrorism attacks of 2001, virtually all the leaders in both parties agreed that the U.S. had no choice but to accept a predominant role in the global effort to combat terrorism. The big question now is whether to pursue that goal by emphasizing U.S. freedom of action or by focusing on cooperation with allies.

Bush's proposal to bring home as many as 70,000 troops from foreign bases highlights his commitment to the first strategy. The charges from Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign that the plan will fray alliances already strained by the Iraq war highlights the Democratic commitment to the second.

Kerry is likely to echo his arguments against the Bush proposal when he addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Ohio today. But Republicans may try to portray Kerry as weak for supporting greater foreign troop levels than Bush does, because that implies greater deference to allies.

The proposed reductions in Europe, in particular, have become entangled with the ongoing dispute about whether Bush should give NATO and other allies a larger voice in American military choices -- a controversy underscored by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. As a result, a call for troop reduction that once raised fears America would be too slow to use force abroad now spurs concern that it will be too quick.

"During the Cold War, bringing troops home was a dovish thing to do," says Philip H. Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank. "Now, it's hawkish."

Until recently, the most prominent calls for significantly reducing American troop commitments abroad generally came from Democrats. The party's 1972 presidential nominee, George S. McGovern, called for halving the number of troops in Europe over three years. Jimmy Carter, the 1976 nominee, called for a phased withdrawal of American troops in South Korea, though he eventually abandoned the idea while in office.

Democratic interest in troop reductions rose during the final years of the Cold War amid concern that military commitments were siphoning resources better used in the economic competition with Japan.

After the Berlin Wall fell, President George H.W. Bush engineered a massive reduction in forces abroad. From 1989 through 1992, the number of troops stationed in Europe fell from 320,000 to 187,000, according to Pentagon figures. But when Bush drew the line at maintaining 150,000 troops in Europe, congressional Democrats pushed to lower the level to 100,000 while imposing further cuts elsewhere in the world.

The argument spilled into the 1992 presidential campaign, when Clinton endorsed reducing the U.S. forces in Europe. He said the reductions would save money and give the U.S. more flexibility, especially with advances in technology for rapidly deploying troops over long distances.

The elder Bush, reflecting the earlier lines of debate over the issue, warned that Europeans would see the further reductions as a sign that America was returning "to the isolation days," as he once put it. "We simply cannot pull back," Bush insisted.

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