RON ASMUS HAS AN INTERESTING OP-ED IN THE WASHINGTON POST today. Early in his article, he writes:
The president proposes something that generations of U.S. diplomats and soldiers fought to prevent and that our adversaries sought unsuccessfully to achieve: radical reduction of U.S. political and military influence on the European and Asian continents. The Bush message, delivered at a campaign rally, also smells of political opportunism. Under pressure but unable to withdraw troops from Iraq, the president has instead reached for what his advisers hope is the next best thing politically — a pledge to bring the boys home from Europe and Asia.
I buy what Asmus writes about Bush’s political opportunism, but that doesn’t change the fact that when the president raises any issue during an election season that the best strategy is to endorse bad policy. Europe is fixed. Those troops should be directed to new roles, and the increasingly competent Europeans should become more responsible for their parochial and regional security.
There is no reason why this development must be perceived to be a net negative in transatlantic relations. In fact, greater European military capacity and competency partnered with American capabilities and objectives elsewhere may make the world a more stable place.
The “generations of soldiers and diplomats” that Ron Asmus is referring to were fighting the Cold War. Today, we are dealing with two sorts of threats. The first is the long term concern of a peer competitor (perhaps China) or a league of other countries arising to balance or challenge American power in the world. The second is a blurred threat from transnational terrorist networks. Both of these sets of challenges require a re-ordering and new calibration of America’s base assets overseas.
Asmus and others — including many who wrote to me yesterday — argue that this election season is no time to discuss foreign policy and basing issues. Some have written that our allies are being undermined yet again by unilateral pronouncements by the Bush administration that were not informed by strategic coordination with allies.
This may be true — but I have several responses. First, America’s global deployment strategy is anachronistic and has been for a long time. A smart strategy would consider what kinds of force structure and assets the United States would prefer to maintain abroad as the so-called “revolution in military affairs” evolves. I have long assumed that naval and air assets seem to be quite important for maintaining power projection capacity abroad. On the other hand, the utility of the manpower part of the equation has diminishing returns over time — particularly when American transportion capacity of troops to hot spots all over the world is so robust and makes the home base siting of these troops irrelevant.
With regard to my long debate with colleagues and friends over U.S. bases in Okinawa who tended to skew the debate towards a shallow and simple-minded, hegelian choice between keeping all U.S. troops there now or removing everything America has on that island, there are many other preferable choices. America should remove and negotiate away those parts of its oversease base structure which carry high costs (including the costs of eroding local support)and which have diminishing utility to American security needs in the future. The Marines on Okinawa fit this equation in my view.
Secondly, we should have started this discussion during Bill Clinton’s tenure and didn’t. I had hoped that when Bill Clinton and the G8 leaders were driven around Okinawa for the 1998 G8 Leaders Summite and saw U.S. military installations in every nook and cranny of that island that there might have been some enlightened consideration of this after the summit.
Thirdly, we should have seen a foreshock of this debate years ago when then Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen instigated hot debates in South Korea, Quatar, and Saudi Arabia by modifying the rhetoric by which we referred to our bases in these respective countries. In South Korea, Cohen (perhaps inadvertently) caused an uproar and student protests by arguing that U.S. bases would remain permanently in Korea even after a reunification of the South and North. Perhaps this is logical — but this strategic commitment was made without consultations with the U.S. Congress or with our ally, South Korea.
In Saudi Arabia and Qater, Cohen stopped referring to our bases in the region as “temporary bases,” and instead called them “semi-permanent bases.” After watching several years of civil protest in Okinawa, Japan; also seeing a lot of local frustration around American bases in South Korea; and then watching the normally docile press organs of Saudi Arabia and Qatar convulse over Cohen’s comments, I began to see that America just didn’t have a good sense of how potentially destablizing its base deployments could be, particularly when the original rationale for the bases had been eroded over long periods of time.
I don’t particularly like criticizing my progressive friends on this issue, but their own critiques of Bush would be enhanced if they got out of the mindset that ALL U.S. assets abroad are useful and began to build into their arguments the importance of doing new deals with host nation citizens to resecure support of American troops if we are going to keep them there.
Bush’s motivations are wrong — I agree. But can’t Democrats embarrass him on the merits of the argument and then put a better global engagement strategy on the table?
— Steve Clemons