Unfinished Business: U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century


The next American president will inherit an overseas military base realignment process begun in the first term of the George W. Bush administration. This realignment, guided by an effort known as the Global Posture Review (GPR), was perhaps former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s chief intellectual and policy accomplishment during his six-year tenure at the Pentagon. Unlike his likely warfighting legacy, particularly in regard to Iraq, the GPR is on generally sound conceptual foundations. But a successful outcome for the Global Posture Review, roughly halfway implemented as of mid-2008, will depend on the next U.S. administration refining numerous rough edges of the current plan — and redefining the broader national security policy context in which any base realignment will inevitably be viewed.

In the end, about 70,000 American military personnel will be relocated as a result of the GPR, not counting those directly affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. While this realignment is not comparable in magnitude to what happened after World War II, or even after the Cold War, it is nonetheless a major milestone in American strategic policy. To date, the U.S. armed forces are about halfway through reductions and other changes in their European ground force capabilities. They are well underway with plans to reduce and relocate the American military presence in Korea. Changes in Japan are coming slowly, but that is probably acceptable given that the U.S.-Japan alliance is in generally good shape. New capabilities are being deployed on Guam and in Africa, building on ideas first formulated in the Clinton administration that the Bush administration has further developed, often with considerable creativity and energy.

The GPR’s objectives are to enhance American military capability and flexibility for the so-called long war on terror, to deal with major shifts in the global alignment of power in Asia, to keep traditional partnerships strong while building up new partnerships with countries of Eastern Europe and Africa and parts of Central Asia, and to improve the quality of life for American military personnel.

But even if the GPR seeks the right goals and is undergirded by sensible overall logic, the time is right for a review of the review. There are several significant problems in its design and execution, due in part to Rumsfeld’s domination of the process, particularly in the early stages—despite the fact that an effort such as the GPR should be thoroughly interagency in character, State Department officials and American allies were not adequately consulted. That leaves much to do for a new administration in improving a conceptually sound, but also rather troubled, process of global posture realignment.

South Korea is where Rumsfeld’s domination of the GPR process caused the most harm, on top of the often acrimonious relationship between Washington and Seoul throughout most of this decade. In Europe, plans to move forces to Romania and Bulgaria on a rotating basis could add unwisely to the deployment burdens of an already overstretched Army and Marine Corps if implemented prematurely; such changes should therefore not take full effect until the combined burden of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions has lessened. Planned cutbacks in Germany would go too far given America’s need to keep improving interoperability with its major allies. There is no reason to have large and heavy American ground forces in Germany, but the case for keeping at least a single heavy brigade is strong. Thankfully, the Bush administration’s newfound willingness to increase the size of the active Army makes it more likely that planned further U.S. troop cuts will be scaled back, largely because it will be difficult to find adequate numbers of places to station them in the United States for the foreseeable future. And while the creation of Africa Command (AFRICOM) has given appropriate new emphasis to the role of Africa in American strategic policy, the fact that AFRICOM is now based in Europe underscores the degree of the United States’ implementation problems — in no small part because it is now associated with an administration seen by many other countries as unilateralist and too militaristic.

Other issues have carried on past Rumsfeld’s tenure and will endure for the next administration to handle. The GPR does not pay enough heed to some concrete military matters, such as enduring vulnerabilities of American forces on Guam, where a major (and generally well conceived) buildup of U.S. forces is underway. On the vexing matter of the longer-term future of U.S. military bases in Iraq, the GPR is silent.

Perhaps most important is a broader tension, if not contradiction, in the philosophy undergirding the Rumsfeld-led review. On the one hand, the review’s architects talk of optimizing a global base network for a protracted war against terrorists prosecuted on many fronts and requiring therefore cooperation with a substantial number of partner states. On the other, the review is largely designed to reduce America’s overseas footprint, particularly in Germany and Korea, and to avoid construction of large bases in other places even when the need for certain new capabilities is apparent. Most new facilities, as in Romania, Bulgaria, and much of Africa, are to be flexible, and quite possibly temporary. U.S. forces are to remain most numerous in countries with a strong and long tradition of allowing relatively unencumbered American use of those forces, such as Britain and Japan. The American presence in Iraq provides an exception to this trend — but it is important to recall that much of the motivation for the GPR arose in the period of 2002 through 2004 when Iraq was not expected to be a longterm military commitment for the United States.

The possible contradiction in this philosophy arises from the fact that, as Iraq has taught us, effective partnership in the war on terror requires commitment to the long-term security of allies. Maximizing America’s own flexibility, while desirable in many ways, must not go so far as to reduce U.S. willingness to stand by its friends and help them stabilize and protect their countries for the long haul. The good news is that a new U.S. administration can rectify this potential problem largely by moving away from much of the rhetoric and style of the Bush administration, and by ensuring that it works to undergird the security capabilities of allies needing the help through a variety of tools. But this situation requires attention. For all the talk of how the GPR is to strengthen America’s overseas capabilities and improve its responsiveness in various ways, the reality that many around the world see is a trend to reduce U.S. commitments abroad out of a desire to preserve American flexibility — and to ensure that the United States not get bogged down excessively in the internal or even the regional problems of allies. This perception may have had some real validity to it during the Rumsfeld era. It will not be generally well-founded in the era ahead. Most American strategists and leaders remain committed to a traditional form of internationalism and engagement, including strong support for allies and other important partners.

The next administration will have to take pains to reestablish the right perception about American intentions, and American dependability, in places where the perception may have been somewhat compromised of late. Thankfully, the underlying ideas associated with many of the planned changes are reasonable enough that a new administration should have a good chance of successfully addressing all these issues and successfully completing an overhaul of U.S. global posture.