Success hinges on savings, security

August 17, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's plan to remove tens of thousands of troops from Europe and Asia ignited a politically charged debate yesterday over whether it would make America safer and save taxpayers money.

The answer hinges on a variety of factors: Do large concentrations of U.S. forces still make sense more than a decade after the end of the Cold War? Is it actually cheaper to keep troops in the United States than overseas? And what causes more political damage with allies: keeping large numbers of troops in countries where they are sometimes unpopular, or removing them and so being perceived as abandoning an ally?

There is also concern about the economic impact on cities and towns where American troops have been stationed, in some cases, for decades.

The administration argued that the plan would cut costs associated with large bases and moving thousands of military families overseas, while providing flexibility to shift troops quickly to the trouble spots of the 21st century.

But Bush's Democratic critics disputed the cost savings and said U.S. troops could be deployed more rapidly to tense parts of the world from forward bases overseas than from the continental United States. They also said the move would undermine alliances with European nations, Japan and South Korea when the United States needs all the allied help it can get in Iraq and in presenting a united front against North Korea.

The plan grew out of the changing security needs after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, which removed much of the rationale for large U.S. bases set up to defend Western Europe and allies in Asia.

No longer did the United States face the prospect of a ground war against Soviet tanks and troops. And with Germany's integration into both the Atlantic alliance and the European Union, there was no longer any fear of a resurgent, hostile Germany like the one that triggered two world wars.

In Asia, the threat shifted from the Soviet Union to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the possibility that a more prosperous China would try to assert hegemony over the Western Pacific.

Cold War strategy

"Our current basing structure was built on the Cold War notion that American forces would largely fight where they were deployed. That hasn't been true for some time," a White House official told reporters yesterday.

Beyond these changes, the terrorist threat emanating from the Middle East and South Asia, with al-Qaida branches scattered across the globe, required that the United States be able to send forces to a variety of conflict zones on short notice.

The Pentagon aims to shrink the number of U.S. troops in Germany, set up smaller bases in Eastern European countries that recently joined NATO and keep more forces in the United States, ready to be dispatched wherever they're needed.

Will it make the nation safer?

"I think yes, to the extent that it will support a more flexible, agile military," said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst at the independent Center for Defense Information. It will also allow for "more deployments and more exercises with different countries," Corbin said.

"The nation is likely to be marginally safer," said Simon Serfaty, a Europe specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rapid deployment to global hotspots in some cases depends less on where the troops are permanently based than on positioning U.S. war materiel such as tanks and heavy artillery around the world for the soldiers to use once they arrive, he said. With air transportation, the difference between a base in the United States and overseas is a matter of six hours.

The argument that American forces have been trained to fight where they are based has been somewhat overtaken in recent years, Serfaty said; for instance, large numbers of U.S. troops have been dispatched from Germany to Iraq.

Corbin said the Korean peninsula, with the continuing threat from Pyongyang, presents "a tougher case" for maintaining large numbers of U.S. troops. U.S. troops based in South Korea have long served to assure Koreans that the United States would come to their aid in any conflict with the North.

But with twice the population of the North and an economy 17 times bigger, South Korea needs U.S. troops much less than in the past, Corbin said, and the presence of American ground troops is an insufficient deterrent against a nuclear threat.

Cost savings from the redeployment are difficult to pin down. Less would need to be spent moving military families. Housing and living costs might be lower in some parts of the United States than in Western Europe or Japan, but higher than in South Korea. Serfaty said Bulgaria and Romania would likely be cheaper sites for U.S. bases than Germany.

Cost of new bases

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