- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

President George W. Bush’s plan to redeploy up to 100,000 American military personnel back to the United States from overseas garrisons will set off a round of speculation in foreign capitals as to the extent of Washington’s post-Iraq commitment to global engagement.

The Pentagon says that the shift of forces to a central reserve will facilitate their rapid movement to new trouble spots anywhere in the world. But whether this will be believed depends on what else Washington does to indicate whether it still has a desire to act boldly on behalf of its interests.

Only a week before, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Mr. Bush was weighing “all tools available,” including covert action, to stop Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, there was some diplomatic movement in both Tehran and Pyongyang as both regimes sought to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein.

On a third front in Libya, the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, did dismantle its weapons of mass destruction under the watchful eyes of the United States and England.

America’s “shock and awe” did not last. Iran and North Korea have returned to their hard-line positions in the belief the U.S. experience in Iraq has soured Washington on further military campaigns of regime change. Indeed, Iran’s support for radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s insurgency in Iraq is meant to drive home the point such actions are too costly to be repeated.

The antiwar movements in the United States and Europe have contributed to higher confidence in Tehran and Pyongyang. Though protests fizzled in the American streets, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have aroused left-wing sentiments, giving the Democratic campaign to unseat President Bush a vicious tone. Liberal criticism in the foreign policy establishment against any more “unilateral” U.S. actions — defined as any action without United Nations approval, also constrains Washington. When Sen. John Kerry recently said he wanted to bring U.S. troops “home where they belong” it was considered a sign of renewed isolationist sentiment.

While the doctrine of regime change marked an important evolution of U.S. strategic thinking compared to Vietnam or the Gulf war, the failure to plan for the occupation of Iraq, a land in one of the world’s most violent regions, indicated an American desire to avoid lengthy involvement. The failure to finish off Sheik al-Sadr last spring, when he had been pushed to the wall by Marines and Army tanks, seemed to show that Washington had lost its taste for war. Sheik al-Sadr use of the summer respite to rebuild his Mahdi militia so as to renew his insurgency is an example of how America’s enemies will respond to perceived weakness.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has consistently opposed any increase in the basic force levels of the active U.S. military, especially the Army. When Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary at the end of the Cold War, he said 14 active Army divisions were the “irreducible minimum” needed to meet U.S. requirements. This was a cut from the 18 divisions the Army had at the time of the Gulf war.

President Bill Clinton downsized the Army to 10 divisions, its lowest strength since before the Korean War erupted in 1950. And there it remains, despite the stress of wars on multiple fronts, garrison duties from past conflicts and the need to keep units at the ready to deter new threats.

An authorized force level of 482,400 regulars were, as of Aug. 4, supported by 123,358 soldiers from the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, making those citizen-soldiers 20 percent of the total active force. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee July 21, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker noted that every division has rotated units through a foreign deployment, and 300,000 Army soldiers were currently overseas. The equivalent of another division is deployed on homeland security duties. To provide fresh units for ongoing foreign campaigns, a brigade is being moved from South Korea to Iraq. Pyongyang cannot help but think the U.S. will not take action in a theater from which withdraws forces.

The larger deployment of forces back to the U.S. could also been seen as stopgap measure to avoid a needed rebuilding of forces to meet the country’s security requirements.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s opposition to expanding the regulars is based on a belief current operations are only a “spike” that soon will subside. There is no need to expand the active military if the world will soon return to the era of peace that supposedly existed prior to September 11, 2001.

But does not such an assumption convey to both allies and adversaries that Washington is thinking more about withdrawing from the world than confronting new threats?

In his HASC testimony, Gen. Schoomaker presented his view of the future: “Whereas for most of our lives the default condition has been peace, now our default expectation must be conflict.”

The Pentagon civilian leadership does not seem to agree. By keeping the military force levels inherited from the Clinton administration, the Bush administration signals that, in its second term, it does not expect to undertake any new foreign interventions. Such an assumption will make America’s adversaries very happy.

William Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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