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Politics Color Troop Plan

August 23, 2004

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States began bringing its 400,000 troops home from their bases overseas. Now about 200,000 are stationed outside the U.S., excluding the more than 150,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of those doing tours of several years are in Germany and South Korea.

Last week, President Bush proposed bringing more soldiers back to U.S. bases. Redeployment is something Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been studying since he took office in 2001. But what should be a study in strategy and tactics, a discussion on how best to provide national security, has been overwhelmed by politics. Hence the president's announcement on troop withdrawals less than three months before an election, at an appearance before the Veterans of Foreign Wars that was paid for by Bush's reelection campaign.

If the Pentagon's plans are good -- and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry denounced them in his equally political appearance before the VFW two days after Bush spoke -- they'll be just as good after Inauguration Day.

Not that any of the redeployments (perhaps eventually totaling as many as 70,000) will happen anytime soon. Pentagon officials said they would not begin for more than a year and could take as long as a decade. Nor would changing the troop strength and locations be cheap.

Bush predicted savings, but they may come at the price of a steep initial investment, according to a Congressional Budget Office report in May on the Army, the service with the most permanent installations and troops outside the U.S. The moving costs will be great, base infrastructure in the U.S. must be expanded to cope with more troops and their families, and contributions from host nations such as Germany will undoubtedly be trimmed.

Kerry criticized the proposed withdrawal of 12,000 of the more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea at a time when Washington is trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But 51 years after the end of the Korean War, South Korea should be able to defend itself, and a withdrawal of one-third of the U.S. troops would be unlikely to persuade Pyongyang that the U.S. is in retreat or unwilling to again come to Seoul's aid.

The primary reason for stationing U.S. troops in nations with strong militaries such as Japan and South Korea is to protect American interests, and only secondarily to give pause to enemies of the host countries. Political support in host countries also plays a role; the United States shut its bases in the Philippines after years of protest.

The Cold War dictated domestic and overseas deployments; the war on terror is necessitating new bases in nations such as Uzbekistan. Advanced technology in the hands of a well-equipped, highly trained military may make it easier to keep troops and their families at home rather than abroad, but the decision must be based on reasons of national security, not politics.

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