President Bush's decision (on Monday, August 16) to withdraw a significant portion of America's military presence in Europe and East Asia is an essential first step in ending the international military subsidies the governments of these regions have enjoyed for more than half a century. Germany will experience the greatest drawdown of U.S. personnel; two divisions (approximately 40,000 troops) will be leaving. Smaller, as yet unspecified, withdrawals will take place from Britain, Italy, South Korea and possibly Japan. The United States will close nearly half of its hundreds of military installations in Europe. If there is any bad news in an otherwise gratifying story, it is that the process may take as long as a decade to complete.
This initiative is a step that should have been taken years ago. Indeed, Cato Institute scholars have recommended a complete withdrawal of American forces from Europe and East Asia since the end of the Cold War. That was a major theme of my book, A Search for Enemies: America's Alliances after the Cold War, published in 1992.
It is absurd that the United States has continued to station 100,000 troops in Europe. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no serious security threat on the Continent. The European Union has a larger population - nearly 400 million compared to America's 285 million. It also has a larger economy than that of the United States - 11.4 trillion in annual GDP compared to less than 11 trillion for the United States and should certainly be able to take care of the minor security problems (such as the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s) that might arise in the region from time to time.
The case for keeping troops in East Asia is nearly as weak. For example, South Korea has twice the population of communist North Korea and an economy 37 times larger. It does not need to remain dependent on the United States for its defense. A country with those advantages should be able to build whatever military forces are needed to deter or defeat its totalitarian rival.
President Bush deserves the gratitude of the American people for deciding to withdraw 70,000 U.S. troops from Europe and East Asia. It is especially gratifying that many of these troops will be coming home rather than being redeployed overseas. It is possible, of course that some of forces leaving Europe and East Asia might be needed in the future to eradicate an Al-Qaeda sanctuary, as the United States did in Afghanistan in 2001. But operations of that magnitude will be the exception rather than the rule in the war against Islamic terrorism. It would be unfortunate if the Bush Administration decided to redeploy the forces withdrawn from Europe and East Asia to Iraq or other client states in the Middle East. The troops we already have in that region are a lightning rod for angry Muslims, and increasing our "footprint" will only breed more resentment.
Likewise, it would serve little purpose to simply transfer the forces from Germany and elsewhere in "old Europe" to Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other countries in "new Europe." Such a redeployment would increase Washington's temptation to use those countries for staging areas for further meddling in the Middle East. Stationing troops in some portions of Eastern Europe might also rile Russia and damage relations with Moscow.
If handled correctly, the withdrawal that President Bush announced is a useful first step. But it needs to be just the first step in a comprehensive disengagement program. Over the next several years, the United States should eliminate its entire military presence in Europe and should withdraw at least all of its ground forces from East Asia. Those commitments were designed for a Cold War era that no longer exists. It is time to bring America's security strategy into the 21st century.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (http://www.realisticforeignpolicy.org/).