Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

From The Reaction, A Surprise Home Run

It is not just the intensity of John Kerry's and the liberal media responses to the President's proposal to bring home many American troops from Europe and Asia that makes one think that he hit a political home run. What really suggests that result is that intensity coupled with the insubstantiality and incompleteness of the arguments against the President's proposal. The New York Times and Washington Post editorials are especially notable for their furious and unsupported rhetoric - but Senator Kerry's own response is also notable. The Times editorial, for example, leads with this grab-bag:

The troop redeployment plan announced yesterday by President Bush makes little long-term strategic sense. It is certain to strain crucial alliances, increase overall costs and dangerously weaken deterrence on the Korean peninsula at the worst possible moment.
As a preliminary matter, consider the Times assertion that the President's proposal makes little long-term strategic sense. The same Times editorial notes that it has been known for some time that the Pentagon wants to pull back perhaps half of the roughly 70,000 soldiers now in Germany and a third of the nearly 40,000 troops in South Korea, and nothing in the Times condemnation of the President's proposal turns on the size. Indeed, a prior Times editorial already second-guessed the Pentagon's request. Further, an Op-Ed item in the Times - whose tone and reasoning seems entirely of a piece with the Times' approach - disputed the Pentagon's related proposal to maintain new bases in Eastern Europe. In short, while the Times' current fulminations are directed at the President - those fulminations are actually corollaries of the Times' conviction that the Pentagon is itself already making a request that makes little long-term strategic sense. How likely is that? And how do the Times and Senator Kerry's rejections of the Pentagon proposal square with John Kerry's repeated pledge to listen to the advice of the military leaders?

Nor does the Times' sweeping but unsupported claim that the proposal is certain to increase overall costs seem to be correct, as the Post notes:

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in a report in May that greatly reducing the U.S. presence overseas could save more than $1 billion a year but could cost nearly $7 billion upfront. "Restationing Army forces would produce, at best, only small improvements in the United States' ability to respond to far-flung conflicts," the CBO said.
It seems more like the CBO essentially expects a wash on the overall cost front, with some allowances for timing of expenses, and with a small improvement in overall military effectiveness. As a matter of common sense, should it cost more to maintain American soldiers in (1) America or (2) bases thousands of miles away? The Times is "certain" that the answer is choice (2), perhaps because Germany pays some of the costs of military bases in Germany.

The criticisms now emanating from Senator Kerry, the Times, the Post and the rest do not seem to include arguments that the President's proposal would increase any risks faced by the affected American servicemen. The Times thinks that The most dangerous threat still comes from North Korea, which is now thought to be building nuclear weapons. That seems correct, but doesn't it then make sense to remove as many American soldiers from the nuclear threat as possible - just as the Pentagon and the President are proposing?

There are fewer than 40,000 troops in South Korea - that's not a number one would expect to actually hold off or even materially delay a conventional assault on the South by the North. Indeed, the entire current American presence is less than the 44,000 fatalities U.S. troops suffered during the Korean War. Instead of being a significant combat force, the 40,000 American soldiers now in Korea are a "trip wire" or "hostage" force - one established and maintained to guaranty that the United States will respond to a conventional attack on the South. That the main threat from the North is now from a possible nuclear strike appears to reduce the combat significance of the American presence while increasing the risk that they would experience high casualties in the event of a Northern nuclear strike. Such increased risk and decreased combat significance in the face of the new nuclear threat appears to argue in favor of maintaining a much smaller American force, since that would reduce the risk of high casualties with no material reduction in the already immaterial combat significance of the American force. South Korea would not reasonably feel imperiled by the reduction, since the smaller force could function as an adequate "trip wire" or "hostage:" the United States will not allow a significant threat to, say, a force of 10,000 soldiers, go unaddressed. The mirror image of these considerations is that while it is true (as the Times notes) that Pyongyang has long coveted a reduction in American troop levels in Korea, any such reduction that leaves the American presence of sufficient strength to serve as an adequate "trip wire" or "hostage" will be of no satisfaction to the North - and therefore the President's proposal gives away no significant bargaining chip to the North.

The President's critics also claim that the repatriations of American troops from Europe is intended to "punish" those Western European nations - especially Germany - that failed to support the recent Iraq war effort. The Administration is denying that motivation, which is certainly correct, because it is preposterous that the United States deploys its military forces out of petulance. Moreover, Germany would simply not be punished by such a move. There is no "punishing" cost to Germany from such a US move.

The roughly 70,000 American soldiers now in Germany are not even a "trip wire" or "hostage" force - which is consistent with the Pentagon's desire to pull back perhaps half of them. The Times and other critics of the President disingenuously carry on as if 70,000 American soldiers are stationed in Germany so that they can rush off - like Batman - on a moment's notice to trouble spots in Africa or Kosovo. That's not what has happened. US European bases are intermediate points from which military actions might be fought and supported by US soldiers mostly home-based in the United States in any event. The Pentagon's proposal for greater reliance on leanly staffed bases in cheaper locales to which men and material can be transported as needed makes good sense, and the President's critics haven't provided any good counterarguments.

Further, a military base that cannot be used more or less at the will of the United States because the host country will not permit such use is not much good at all. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House can ignore that fact, which means that they cannot ignore the fact that the current German government seriously considered totally prohibiting the use of United States bases in Germany and German air space for the Iraq war and did seriously restrict the American use of those bases. Indeed, arguments were made and taken seriously in Germany that such American use of those bases violated the German constitution. Further, the German government actually obstructed American efforts to provide assistance to Turkey in connection with the Iraq war, as noted in this New York Times article. It is simply disingenuous to pretend that such serious symptoms of unreliability of an ally can be ignored to the point of assuming - as the Times and the President's critics are doing - that reliability of the host country is not a major factor in determining where to locate a military base or the appropriate location of military forces. Germany just cannot be presumed to be reliable now.

Oddly, it is the President's critics who are undiplomatically publicly harping on the connection between the recalcitrance of some European countries (especially Germany) during the Iraq war and the troop repatriation proposals advanced by the Pentagon and the President. The unreliability of those countries cannot be ignored by Pentagon planners or any White House administration. But there is no need to fray the diplomatic ties with those countries with continuing public harping. It's strange that the Democrats who prattle on about how the current President has abraded diplomatic relations with such countries of old Europe are more than willing to needlessly abrade those relations by drawing attention to the recent unreliability of their governments.

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