Let’s Rethink America’s Global Military Presence

Whether you applaud or cringe at the way Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld goes after European politicians over Iraq, his willingness to challenge U.S. military tradition, bureaucracy and four-star generals on other subjects is healthy for the country.

The latest case in point is the American global military presence—even if it may seem strange that just as we pour more than 200,000 troops into the Persian Gulf region and sustain 20,000 or so in and around Afghanistan, Mr. Rumsfeld wants to reconsider the locations and roles of the other 250,000 U.S. forces based or deployed overseas from Germany to Korea to other places.

Why does the United States still have 70,000 troops in heavily urbanized Germany, far from any combat zone? Largely because, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was easier to downsize the huge U.S. military presence in Germany than to rethink our basic role in Europe.

Rather than keep most of two of the U.S. Army’s six heavy divisions in Germany, far from any plausible combat theater, the United States should go smaller, lighter and quicker. As Gen. James L. Jones, NATO’s top commander, suggests, bases in Europe should be viewed as “lily pads” for regional and global deployments.

General Jones may want to rethink his idea of mimicking the Marines on Okinawa and putting U.S. forces overseas without their families unless absolutely necessary, but otherwise he is on to something.

This might mean eventually building the future U.S. presence in Germany around one of the Army’s new medium-weight “Stryker brigades” as well as an equivalently sized Marine formation. And perhaps another unit in a new NATO member such as Poland. With the Balkan wars over, the case for doing this is stronger than ever.

Such a smaller, more mobile force would face fewer problems training than it does now in heavily populated Germany. It also would provide a model of rapid deployment that most European militaries need to emulate.

In South Korea, immediate large force cutbacks are not appropriate given the current state of crisis on the peninsula. But three changes are worth considering.

First, to defuse South Korean anger at U.S. forces, who have been involved in a fatal accident and other regrettable incidents in recent months, the U.S. military should give up most of the great deal of prime real estate it occupies in downtown Seoul. It’s already wisely consolidating its base presence in Korea, but the process has not gone far enough.

Second, Mr. Rumsfeld is right that South Korea is now capable of providing a robust initial defense of its territory, so U.S. forces need not remain near the DMZ in such large numbers.

Third, over the longer term, the United States needs ideas for a different kind of force presence in Korea, where there are now about 37,000 troops. If North Korea will agree to conventional arms cuts, we should be prepared to make at least modest reductions to spur along the process.

And some day, we will need a newer and more expeditionary philosophy for a future U.S. force presence in Korea. That means focusing forces largely on regional tasks and on multilateral missions.

As ambitious as Mr. Rumsfeld’s thinking already is, he should cast his net even wider. About 45,000 U.S. forces remain in Japan. That presence is highly useful in most ways, largely for the naval and air bases it provides.

But the 20,000 Marines on the small and densely populated island of Okinawa need not remain in such large numbers for any convincing military purpose. Perhaps 5,000 Marines, together with ample pre-positioned military supplies and emergency access rights to Okinawan ports and airfields in the event of crisis or war, could serve U.S. regional interests just as well while taking pressure off Okinawan politics and the U.S.-Japan alliance.

With change surely coming soon to the nature of our Persian Gulf deployments, what better time to rethink the whole global military role and presence of the United States?