- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

America in Europe enjoyed a comfortable marriage through the 25th anniversary of NATO and the 50th gold mark, but is now throwing away the wedding ring after 55 years, known as the Emerald celebration. So spoke a prominent NATO statesman who did not wish to be named. President Bush’s decision to bring home some 70,000 troops and 100,000 dependents from Germany, Japan and South Korea unleashed a flood of learned speculation about hidden motives — probably all wrong. They ranged from a geopolitically tone deaf to an irredeemably myopic Uncle Sam.

One school of think tank lucubrators concluded this was another example of the superpower’s decision to move troops around the world unilaterally, without having to submit a decision to intervene in a hot spot abroad to the whims of recalcitrant allies. Another set of thinkers mused it was a subliminal impulse toward isolationism, a reflection of imperial overstretch, leaving NATO in the lurch.

The latest Pew Research Center poll shows dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq is affecting opinions on foreign policy “as much as, or more than, concerns about terrorism.” The last election when foreign and defense issues outweighed economic matters, according to the Pew Center, was in 1972 during the Vietnam War.

The Pew survey lends weight to a third school of European policy wonks that says Mr. Bush is unable to announce the return of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, so he changes the public’s focus by promising to bring some 70,000 servicemen and women home from abroad. Why? The president’s answer taxes credulity: for them to have “more time for their kids, and to spend with their families.”

The two divisions scheduled for transfer from Germany to the United States are already close to their families. Wives and husbands of troopers enjoy family life off duty. They are an integral part of the German economy. Only a small German minority approves of Mr. Bush’s decision. The overwhelming majority regrets the decision. America’s uniqueness as the world’s only superpower is its military presence abroad, not at home.

One former NATO supreme commander, not for attribution, said, “The timing of this thing is appalling. The Europeans see us in a withdrawal mode at a time when Iran and militant Islam appear to be on a roll in the Middle East.” North Korea’s self-sequestered pariah hermit Kim Jong-il may misread a one-third reduction in U.S. troop levels in South Korea as a signal to hang tough on the nuclear front.

NSC Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s hardening talk about Iran’s secret nuclear weapons development, coupled with “neo-con” privateers calling for a preemptive strike against Iran, are also diluted with the wrong message to Iran’s superannuated clerics. There are many more dimensions to U.S. troop presence in Europe than a purely military one. What about elementary psychology? When Germany is finally barren of U.S. troops, the United States will have lost its nulli secundus uniqueness in Europe, unmatched since the Roman Empire.

For NATO’s new members in Central and Eastern Europe and the three Baltic states — what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called “New Europe” — U.S. troops in Germany are their security blanket against a revival down the road of Russian aggrandizement. Not to worry, Washington answers, because lily pads are being established in Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea where a few hundred men and women will be based. In case of emergency, regular units can then quickly be dispatched to the lily pads, pick up additional equipment, refuel and continue refreshed to theaters in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and Africa.

American commanders in Europe are baffled at an announcement about moves that are still a decade away. One general, speaking privately, said “accommodations for two divisions and families are not available in the United States today even if base closings are postponed. New facilities will have to be built. This will cost several billion dollars and Congress is yet to see the bill.”

The Europeans are not reassured at a time when they begin to detect signs of Iraqi fatigue setting in across the United States. The headlines about 1,000 U.S. killed in Iraq will come to dominate front pages as Mr. Bush is in the closing stages of a rough campaign. There is much European media speculation about another Vietnam, i.e., the United States phases out of Iraq short of restoring peace and stability. Well displayed in both the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, read by decision-makers the world over, maverick geopolitician Edward Luttwak’s op-ed — the U.S. should “threaten to leave Iraq” — was widely cited as a Pentagon trial balloon.

It is usually wise, wrote Mr. Luttwak, “to abandon failed ventures sooner rather than later. Yes, withdrawal would be a blow to American credibility, but less so if it were deliberate and abrupt rather than a retreat under fire imposed by surging anti-war sentiments at home (see Vietnam). So long as the U.S. is tied down in Iraq by over-ambitious policies of the past, it can only persist in wasteful futile aid projects and tragically futile combat. … For geographic reasons, many other countries have more to lose from an American debacle in Iraq than does the United States itself. The time has come to take advantage of that difference.”

This from a defense intellectual who said in early 2003 Iraq would be a cakewalk and Ahmad Chalabi was America’s best hope to run a free Iraq.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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