Mission accomplished

August 18, 2004

DEMOCRATS ARE WRONG to criticize President Bush's decision to reduce the number of American troops over the next few years in Germany and South Korea. They argue that big overseas deployments are still needed with the world in so much turmoil, and that the president's plan risks further alienating America's allies. In fact, this is the right move at the right time.

Mr. Bush's critics, we suspect, are reallymotivated by a fear that, with fewer foreign entanglements, the administration might be tempted to follow an even more unilateral military policy. Certainly, that would be an outcome worth resisting. But not this way -- not by sticking to an outdated system of bases that in some sense turns U.S. soldiers into hostages.

The world has changed. The U.S. Army is changing. It is destined to become quicker and more flexible, built of smaller and more self-sufficient brigades in place of the cumbersome divisional structure that dates back to the trench warfare of World War I. The old ways no longer suffice.

The original American mission in Germany was, of course, that of an occupying power. Germany was the great destabilizer of the 20th century, and the Allies installed their armies there in 1945 to keep the peace in Europe. Soon enough, U.S. concerns focused more on the Soviet threat than the German one, but when Soviet power collapsed the German question re-emerged, still unresolved. A barely spoken, but acknowledged, rationale for NATO's expansion eastward was to ensure containment -- not of the Russians -- but of the Germans. A power vacuum on Germany's eastern border, in the view of former National Security Adviser Zbigniew K. Brzezinski and others, would have been a recipe for trouble.

Today Germany is contained, tightly embraced by its old and new NATO allies. The mission that began 59 years ago has been accomplished. The Americans can go home -- and they should.

But aren't forward bases necessary in this era of Middle East conflict? Yes, but not as huge permanent deployments. The United States will maintain staging areas throughout Europe and Asia, and these should be even more effective than the old bases. Won't the Germans feel abandoned by the Americans at a time when the United States needs allies? To be sure, Europeans have complicated and ambivalent feelings about American troops on their continent, but the fact is that military bases don't make the best neighbors.

A drawdown won't alienate NATO; to the contrary, it should give new life to the old alliance by removing the vestiges of American paternalism.

Korea doesn't present as neat a picture as Germany does, but there, too, the big American presence has started to outlive its usefulness. The fear for decades was of a massed North Korean attack. Americans were stationed just below the demilitarized zone as a tripwire for war. But this is 1950s thinking. The issue in Korea is nuclear now. America has the cruise missiles and ICBMs to confront a nuclear threat; what it needs on the ground is not boots so much as diplomacy.

Of course, the United States shouldn't scramble out of Korea without extracting concessions from the other side. Of course, Mr. Bush's promise of significant cost savings should be viewed with a jaundiced eye -- but saving money is not really the point of this exercise.

And of course any redeployment can be handled clumsily -- and there's no guarantee that the policy that follows won't be a stupid one. This is where enlightened leadership should assert itself. But this plan makes sense.

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