WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Whenever a war or protracted crisis ends, Gen. John R. Galvin said here the other day, we expect that "paradise" will quickly follow. This flies in the face of both American experience and the post-Cold War world outlook, said the top military leader of the Western alliance, but the hope won't seem to go away.
"Always we tend to think, when a threat is passed, everything will be paradise," he said in an interview in which he argued his case for a strong but reduced military presence in Europe. "That's what we thought during World War II. It didn't turn out that way either."
The American general, who has commanded U.S. and allied forces in Europe since 1987, appeared nevertheless to have made some significant headway in Congress -- at least for now -- in arguing against hastier and larger troop withdrawals than those now in progress.
After hearing General Galvin's brief, Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said it would be "a very bad mistake to accelerate the pace" of withdrawals now.
The Bush administration has planned to cut the Army, Navy and Air Force in Europe to a total of 150,000 troops by 1995 -- a reduction of 165,000 from the 1990 level -- and maintain that strength thereafter.
The new element seemingly introduced by General Galvin was that the goal could be re-assessed later on, as security structures evolve in Europe.
In a non-binding resolution last year, Congress called for a cut to 100,000, and Mr. Nunn himself has advocated an eventual slash to "75,000 to 100,000."
There are fundamental differences between the administration and its military planners on the one hand and some legislators on the other over the role U.S. troops should play. With but slight exaggeration, the difference is over whether there should be a more or less token force that could be expanded in a crisis or a full-fledged combat force ready for coalition actions.
"It can be a much smaller [than the Cold War] force, but it has to be one that is capable of operations," General Galvin said.
Thus, if he and his associates prevail this year as expected, the debate will be back again. Not too far in the background is the basic issue of how far back America will go on the road to isolation.
General Galvin is convinced that, on the whole, George Washington had it wrong. Or, to put it a better way, the commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces argues that there have been some changes since Washington set out his dictum. The first president left office asking why the United States should "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice."
"America has found in this century," the general said, "that it cannot look to security by simply creating some kind of fortress and withdrawing into it and pulling up the drawbridge."
He readily granted that "alliances are entangling and they involve commitment." But twice in this century the United States tried to avoid them and "found we were drawn into war anyway."
Entanglement in NATO over more than 40 years, however, had led to the disappearance without war of "a massive threat of an attack [from the East] of 200 divisions against us in 48 hours." That, anyway, was what NATO prepared against until the Warsaw Pact and Soviet empire collapsed.
In justification of NATO's new strategy, with smaller and much more mobile forces to deal with crises, General Galvin emphasized three points that showed the future was "not entirely predictable."
* "The unknown future of Russia and the other republics."
He cited Russia's strong comeback after the 1905 Russo-Japanese war and after its 1941 defeats by Germany. He didn't know what would happen over the coming five years; but he noted that under the treaty reducing conventional forces in Europe Russia was allowed 6,000 to 8,000 tanks, enough for 28 to 36 army divisions. As the commander charged with defense in Europe, "I have to take all that into account."
* Events of the past 19 months in which U.S. and European forces have been involved.
He cited the Persian Gulf war, movement of NATO's Mobile Force units to help defend Turkey, use of NATO nations' forces to aid the Kurds in Iraq, use of U.S. airlift to ferry Belgian and French forces to Zaire, humanitarian undertakings in the former Soviet Union. The next year and a half may be different, but, "We are going to be faced with certain instability."
* The same newspapers that ask what threats remain report daily "enough threats to last you for many, many years."
He mentioned possible Libyan collaboration with Iraq on "peaceful uses" of nuclear power, terrorist organizations, Iranian soliciting of nuclear scientists from the former Soviets and the conflict between Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Given all this uncertainty, and the danger of trying to predict even a year ahead, General Galvin said, why not wait until the U.S. withdrawal gets closer to its present goal before talking about cutting more?
"My message to the U.S. Congress . . . is . . . let's not try to draw down any faster than we're going," he said. "It's just not safe."