Troop Realignment

Ralph Peters notes the frustrations of doing anything of importance during an election year.

On Monday, President Bush announced a plan to improve military readiness by withdrawing our troops from Cold War-era garrisons overseas. This should not be a partisan issue. But it’s an election year . . .

Every Democrat jockeying for an assistant-to-the-deputy-undersecretary janitorial position in a Kerry administration attacked the proposed basing changes as calamitous: We’ll throw away our influence in Europe. NATO will buckle. South Korea will be defenseless. And virgins will be ravished around the world.

In remarks on the subject yesterday, John Kerry lied to an audience of veterans. He knows the withdrawal plan will span a decade and isn’t precipitous. He knows we’re not abandoning South Korea. He knows the Germans and French won’t join us in Iraq, no matter who’s president. But he and his gang of has-beens will say anything.

Note that when the panderers speak few mention the well-being of our troops. Not one presents a reasoned strategic argument for maintaining wasteful garrisons abroad. And not one admits that the Germans only care about losing the jobs we provide.

The Dems’ position boils down to this: Withdraw our soldiers from Iraq, where they’re needed. Leave them in Europe, where they’re useless and unwanted. And to hell with the welfare of our troops and their families.

It does seem to be the case. Ironically, this is simply election year rhetoric. It seems that pretty much any move Bush makes is going to get this type of reaction. Indeed, the drawdowns in Europe and Korea are long overdue and the ten year timetable that has been announced is exceedingly slow. The Cold War will have been over nearly a quarter century and the Korean War sixty years by the time these moves are made.

Update (1205):

David Englin has a rather odd counter-point in The New Republic.

But though the plan seems like a good move on the surface, it is in fact a terrible idea. First and foremost, it would end probably the best thing America has had going in public diplomacy during the past 50 years–and at a time when public diplomacy is vital to U.S. security. Easily recognized by their jeans and baseball hats, military families have for decades been front-line ambassadors of American values and culture to the nations in which they have been stationed. Military personnel and their families come from every part of America; and they live, work, worship, and learn among citizens of the nations where they are stationed. Some live on base in military housing, while others live off base in whatever kinds of homes and neighborhoods the locals inhabit. But all spend time in the communities where they are stationed. Mandatory briefings, military public service announcements, and admonishments from commanders and teachers constantly remind them–even the children–that they are ambassadors of all things American. Locals and their American guests develop relationships and get to know each other as friends, neighbors, customers, tenants, and even congregants.

And the diplomacy works both ways. When those same military families return to the United States, they become, in effect, ambassadors to their fellow Americans of the countries in which they have lived. When international issues arise in classrooms or boardrooms or around the kitchen table, military personnel who have lived overseas have the benefit of firsthand experience with many of the nations and cultures involved. I was born and raised on U.S. bases overseas, and I spent much of this time in England. A commander’s daughter was surprised to hear from me that English schools require students to recite the Lord’s Prayer; and I, in turn, was surprised to hear from her that being a young woman in Turkey wasn’t the oppressive experience I assumed it would be. The cultural understanding developed by military personnel who live overseas gets added to the mix of American life in ways that enrich us all–and military personnel in turn advertise the best of American life to those with whom they live. The cumulative effect has been a kind of two-way public diplomacy that sustains important international relationships despite foreign policy differences.

I don’t deny that these are tangible benefits of having American troops stationed abroad. Still, it’s incredibly anciliary to the mission of the military. Further, the stationing that we’re talking about is mostly in Germany, England, and South Korea. In the first two instances, it’s not as if we don’t have fairly substantial exchange with these states regardless of the military one. In the case of South Korea, these are almost always one year “hardship” tours with no dependents. Most GIs I’ve talked to who have been to Korea seem primarily to have experienced it as a place where they have exotic food and one can get maids and hookers for cheap-cheap.

The armed forces are many things but a cultural exchange program is rather low on the totem pole. As Peters notes, the disadvantages from a family standpoint–the detrimental effects on the careers of spouses, most notably–far outweighs this benefit.

Meanwhile, Doug Feith notes in WaPo (A Smarter Way to Use Our Troops),

A further benefit to this restructuring will be improving the quality of life of military personnel and their families. Accompanied tours abroad are no boon when the service member has to leave his or her family behind to deploy to another location. Right now, for example, the families of European-based soldiers who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan face double separation: from their deployed loved ones and from their extended families back in the United States.

He also assesses the strategic rationale, which seems to be undisputed other than by the Kerry campaign (and only recently that).

See Orrin Judd and McQ for other takes on this issue.

For background, see Kerry faces tough veteran crowd (Chicago Tribune)

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Campaign 2004, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. David Englin says:


    On your comment about England, Germany, and South Korea: Please keep in mind that Bush’s plan specifically calls for bringing home 100,000 military family members. You note correctly that tours in South Korea tend to be unaccompanied, which means that most of the 100,000 family members would come from Europe (hence my focus on Europe in the piece.) Part of my public diplomacy argument is that living among the people of another nation is qualitatively different from other forms of exchange in ways that uniquely enhance public diplomacy. You’re right that this is ancillary to the military mission, but my argument is that it’s sufficiently beneficial to American interests that it ought not be ignored.

    The Feith/Bush argument that this will improve quality of life for military families is, frankly, an election-year sham. First, most military families strongly desire overseas assignments. Relatively low host-nation cost of living (with the exception of Japan) combined with generous COLA makes the money and lifestyle great, DoD schools are some of the best there are, and there’s a strong “see the world” factor. Therefore, to the extent that this reduces postive opportunities for military families, this diminishes their quality of life. Moreover, the notion that they’ll have more time with their uniformed family member is pure speculation. If troops are training at unaccompanied bases overseas but their families are stationed in the US — where before they were living and training with their families overseas — that means more time apart.