U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled Monday one of the largest planned troop redeployments since the onset of the Cold War 50 years ago.
In a speech to a veterans’ group in Ohio, where he faces a tight race to win November’s presidential election, Bush said the move would create a "more agile and flexible force," as well as "reduce the stress on our troops and military families."
The initiative would be implemented over 10 years and bring home up to 70,000 U.S. troops from major bases in Asia and Europe, but it is not expected to reduce the overall size of the U.S. military.
In May and June, the Pentagon confirmed plans to sharply cut forces stationed at large U.S. bases in Germany, South Korea and Okinawa, Japan, and to redeploy many troops to smaller, more widely dispersed facilities sometimes called "lily pads" along an "arc of crisis" stretching along a wide band from Southeast Asia to West Africa, as well as to bases at Guam in the Pacific Ocean and back home.
A closer look at where Washington is most interested in acquiring access to military facilities suggests a determining factor might be proximity to oil and gas-producing areas, pipelines and shipping routes through which vital energy supplies pass.
Although senior officials in the State and Defense departments declined Monday to discuss details of the redeployment, they acknowledged in a briefing that discussions were underway on military and political cooperation in the Baltic region and West Africa.
To many military analysts, the plan makes a lot of sense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for large military bases housing conventional forces in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe evaporated from a strategic point of view.
Also, the steady buildup of well-equipped and well-trained forces in South Korea, where Washington has stationed nearly 40,000 troops for the past 25 years, made that country more than a match for a possible confrontation with North Korea.
In addition, the presence and behavior of U.S. forces in both Western Europe and Northeast Asia, particularly in South Korea and Okinawa, have become increasingly unpopular and a lightning rod for growing anti-Americanism and resentment. Reducing the military’s "footprint" there might ease those feelings, it is believed.
But others view the redeployment as both a pointer of the United States’ imperial overreach and a contradiction of the Bush administration’s stated policy of supporting the global spread of democracy.
"It exposes something that has largely been kept secret so far: the size of the American military empire. We’re talking about well over 700 military bases in 130 different countries," said Chalmers Johnson, president of the California-based Japan Policy Research Institute.
"We talk about how we want to bring democracy, but we’re moving our bases to the most autocratic places on earth," he added, noting growing military deployments to Baltic, central Asian and Eastern European states.
Johnson also pointed out the growing conflict between Washington and the German government over environmental pollution originating from U.S. bases, contrasting that with the looser environmental regulations and lax enforcement of those rules in the former Soviet states to which the U.S. military is moving.
Another concern is that the United States is abandoning some of its longest and most traditional allies in Europe and Asia in favor of newer and less established states in more volatile regions.
For instance, the administration plans to reduce forces in Germany some 70,000 troops and scores of warplanes by half.
The fall of the "iron curtain" and the inevitable cut in troops in Germany marks the "end of a long era where American forces have served in Europe since the end of World War Two in a great military tradition," said former army general and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, William L Nash.
"Europe is still a lot closer [to most areas of conflict] than the U.S., and we’ve been able to deploy forces from Germany to the Mideast and Africa," he added in an interview.
According to the administration officials, who insisted on anonymity, the new focus will be on "military capabilities instead of troop quantities." That means putting in place preexisting agreements with allied countries to permit basing if and when the need arises instead of retaining massive garrisoned forces, such as Ramstein Air Force base in Germany.
Although the new strategy might prove cost-effective in some areas, Nash argues that economies of scale will be lost with the closure or shrinking of large military bases, specifically in Germany.
A major concern is the damage that such redeployment could do to Cold War alliances, particularly with Europe, already shaky after Washington invaded Iraq in 2003 without the backing of those allies, except Britain.
Under the plan, some European soldiers would be sent home, while most would be moved to cheaper bases in Bulgaria and Romania, closer to the Caucasus and the Middle East.
The strategy is, largely, an update of the controversial 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) written under the auspices of current Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser, Lewis "Scooter" Libby both of whom played key roles in driving the Bush administration to invade Iraq.
The 1992 paper, which was significantly watered down at the insistence of then-Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, called for Washington to act as the guarantor of global security and predicted that U.S. military interventions would be a "constant fixture" of the future a prospect that, in light of the unhappy and costly experience in Iraq to date, is not very popular at the moment, either here or abroad.
Supporters of Bush’s Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, reacted quickly to the redeployment plan. Former ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a foreign policy aide to Kerry, told CNN the scheme "will weaken our national security."
"How can we withdraw troops from Korea while we are engaged in delicate negotiations with North Korea," which "really does have weapons of mass destruction?" he asked. "This is another example of the administration’s unilateralism," he added, "which is not going to save us money."