Redeployment plan comes under fire

August 18, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In ordinary times, President Bush's announcement of a broad redeployment of American troops abroad might have been greeted widely as a sensible adjustment to the reality that the Cold War is over, replaced by the entirely different threat of global terrorism.

But these are not ordinary times.

The president is engaged up to his eyeballs in a war that won't go away in Iraq. He is afflicted by a disintegrating alliance with America's traditional international friends. And he faces a growing nuclear peril from North Korea.

Most of the planned 70,000-plus force redeployment is to come from Germany, among the most vehement foes of the Iraq adventure, and from South Korea, where U.S. troop strength has been a bargaining chip in diplomatic efforts to diminish that nuclear threat from the North.

Within the military community, including National Guard and Reserve members and their families, there are burgeoning criticisms that the U.S. armed forces are stretched too thin, putting unwise and unfair pressures on all concerned.

Beyond that, the president is in the midst of a tough campaign for re-election in which U.S. military power and the wisdom or folly of its use have become a centerpiece.

It is a campaign that also has become a competition between Mr. Bush and decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry over their relative qualifications to serve as commander in chief.

Further, that campaign is going forward in a climate of public suspicion about this president's credibility in the wake of unrealized claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and other Bush rationales for his invasion of that country.

All of these factors raise questions about the timing of the redeployment announcement. It has been under consideration at the Pentagon for some time and is not scheduled to begin for at least two years or completed for a decade or more.

Additionally, the president, in his speech to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, made a point of saying how the changes would make life better for troops now based abroad and for their families.

Their lifestyles and morale have taken a beating as a result of unexpectedly extended deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Bush defended the planned redeployments "for the sake of our military families," explaining that "our families will have more time on the home front, and more predictability and fewer moves over a career. Our military spouses will have fewer job changes, greater stability, more time for their kids and to spend with their families at home."

Not surprisingly in light of the political context, one of Mr. Kerry's most prominent supporters, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, an outspoken critic of the Iraq adventure, quickly charged that the redeployment plan would "significantly undermine U.S. national security. As we face a global war on terror with al-Qaida active in more than 60 countries," he went on, "now is not the time to pull back our forces."

Other retired military leaders echoed Mr. Clark's view at a news conference yesterday.

The announcement has triggered a debate among military experts about the value and costs of the broad redeployment, raising questions over why the president would want such a debate over the future shape of the armed forces when he has his hands full with the immediate military challenges he faces.

If disclosure of the plan is intended as a diversion from the war in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism, its contentious nature may instead only intensify questions about Mr. Bush's qualifications and record as a military leader.

Mr. Kerry is certain to weigh in on the sweeping reorganization and its timing.

In the 2000 election, the votes of American military personnel serving abroad provided a significant boost for then-candidate Bush, especially in the razor-thin margin that gave him Florida's electoral votes and the election.

Defection of Guard and Reserve voters particularly could be a major peril to his re-election prospects come November. Whether this redeployment plan will make voting soldiers, sailors and airmen better disposed to him is an open question.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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