WASHINGTON -- In a campaign speech Monday before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush announced his intention to withdraw 70,000 troops from bases in Europe and East Asia out of a permanent overseas force of nearly a quarter of a million.
On Wednesday, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry fired back, saying, "The president's plan does not strengthen our hand in the war against terror." Yet Democrats have for decades looked sympathetically on reducing the number of U.S. troops stationed overseas. Why such a sudden and sharp reversal on a long-overdue adjustment?
From a military standpoint, the redeployment makes excellent sense. It was justified even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan focused attention on the need to eliminate inefficiencies in the use of forces. In Europe, the threat faced by the two U.S. heavy armored divisions being withdrawn -- the Soviet and Warsaw Pact militaries -- had vanished over a decade ago.
In East Asia, there is still danger from North Korea, but South Korea has been able to defend itself for some time. It has twice as many people as the North, an economy 37 times larger, and a powerful and well-trained military.
Nor does it necessarily help U.S. military operations to have troops "forward deployed." For example, it normally takes longer to deploy troops to Asia from Europe than from the United States. As the Defense Department noted, if you want to be able to deploy to numerous trouble spots around the world, being forward deployed does not always mean optimally deployed.
Given modern travel times by air -- it is only a few more hours to get to the Middle East from the United States than from Europe -- the important thing is not where the people are, it is where the equipment is, particularly for heavy forces. Deployment times can be shortened most by pre-positioning equipment and supplies on land or on ships near likely deployment zones.
The troop realignment also fits in with the efforts of the military to transform itself following the end of the Cold War. U.S. advances in military transportation, logistics, information management and weaponry mean that its forces can get places faster and more efficiently and do not need to send as many forces, at least for conventional combat.
U.S. forces handily defeated Iraq's large military even without deploying an entire Army division that was intended to attack through Turkey. The heavy divisions in Europe will appropriately be replaced by a smaller but faster-deploying medium brigade under the Bush initiative, and transportation units will no doubt remain in place.
Despite the sound military justifications for the withdrawal, the Kerry campaign quickly deployed heavy-hitters Gen. Wesley K. Clark, former NATO commander, and Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.N. ambassador, to criticize the move.
"This is another example of the administration's unilateralism," said Mr. Holbrooke. "It's not good diplomacy."
Mr. Clark argued, "As we face a global war on terror with al-Qaida active in more than 60 countries, now is not the time to pull back our forces."
But our allies understand the military imperative. Much as they would like to hold on to the economic and military subsidies the United States has lavished on them through the bases for a half-century, they are not stupid and have seen the writing on the wall for years. Hence, in Germany they are unlikely to take the move as revenge for disagreements over Iraq. The Pentagon has stated that discussions of the details have been under way for a long time, so the moves are no surprise to them.
Nor is the global war on terror a reason to avoid change. The repositioning of these forces, if anything, supports an increased capability against terrorists. Armored divisions sitting in large bases in Germany provide very little capability to strike terrorists. Lighter, faster units in the United States with access to a network of small facilities abroad provide the right capability (unless the government continues to follow the misguided strategy of overthrowing governments like Iraq's rather than attacking terrorists directly).
The Kerry criticism seems more a result of the bizarre political double standard that requires the combat veteran to prove that his national security credentials are equal to those of the candidate who skipped Vietnam.
Indeed, the curious timing of the Bush initiative -- before the plans have been fully worked out internally or with allies -- supports General Clark's charge of "pure politics." There is, however, a simple way for the administration to show that it is motivated by military transformation concerns, not politics.
After the huge military presence in Europe and Asia, the last remaining pillar of the Cold War military is the slate of expensive new weapons that were designed to fight the Soviet Union and are still being developed at full speed at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. If the administration wants to prove its bona fides, and really help transformation, it can take the similarly overdue step of canceling its unneeded and costly Cold War weaponry.
Marcus Corbin, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, co-authored a report on U.S. forces and basing, "Reforging the Sword: Forces for a 21st Century Security Strategy."