WASHINGTON -- For 60 years, American troops in the tens of thousands have been sitting in Germany essentially where Eisenhower left them at the end of World War II. For 50 years, American troops in the tens of thousands have been sitting where Matthew Ridgway left them at the end of the Korean War. For three years, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been making plans to undo this colossal idiocy.
On Monday, President Bush formally unveiled plans to withdraw 60,000 to 70,000 American troops from obsolete battle stations. Some are to come home. Others are to be redeployed to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia to smaller, more flexible bases closer to the new front of the new war, the war on terror.
The move is long overdue. The U.S. military presence in Germany was meant to anchor an American commitment to defend Europe against Soviet invasion. The Soviet Union disappeared 13 years ago. What in God's name are two heavy divisions still doing there?
During the Cold War their purpose was "to keep America in, Russia out, and Germany down.'' Well, Russia is not exactly set to invade Europe. It is not America's job to keep Germany down. And America has other places its troops must more urgently go -- and where many of its allies are not prepared to tread.
The Democrats' response is a classic demonstration of reactionary liberalism, the reflexive defense of the status quo long after its raison d'etre has evaporated. Kerry adviser Wesley Clark protested vigorously: ``As we face a global war on terror with al Qaeda active in more than 60 countries, now is not the time to pull back our forces.''
He cannot be serious. How exactly are the 72,000 American troops in Germany fighting al Qaeda? A lot of good they did in uncovering the al Qaeda cell in Hamburg that carried out 9/11. This hugely expensive deployment -- with its large logistics tail and tens of thousands of dependents added to the bill -- could be put to infinitely better use elsewhere.
Critics are particularly vociferous about drawing down 12,500 of our troops in South Korea. We all know what our troops are doing there. They are intended to be sitting ducks. Thirty-seven thousand Americans are not going to repel a million-man North Korean army. Their purpose is to die in the first hours of a North Korean invasion -- setting off a tripwire that forces the United States to enter the war.
This invitation to suicide might have made sense when South Korea was weak, impoverished and war-ravaged. Today it is an industrialized tiger with a large and superbly equipped army. It makes far more sense to redeploy these troops to where they are really needed -- to support weak, impoverished and war-ravaged countries in the Middle East front whose governments cannot yet carry the burden of their own defense.
John Kerry claims that withdrawing troops will send ``the wrong signal'' in a confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear weapons. Where was he when the Clinton administration sent a signal of abject surrender to the North Koreans by offering two shiny new nuclear reactors, oil shipments and all kinds of diplomatic goodies in return for a paper promise to freeze their nuclear program -- which they now brazenly and proudly claim to have broken long ago?
It is long past time that we readjusted our defensive lines overseas to reflect the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. still has 1,700 military personnel in Iceland. From whom exactly are we protecting Iceland? Or are we there to keep an eye on al Qaeda cells in Greenland?
Democrats accuse the administration of politicizing the redeployment by bringing it up as a campaign issue. This truly is precious. The Democrats turned their convention into a four-day teach-in celebrating the Swift boats of the Mekong River circa 1968 -- and then question the legitimacy of raising as a campaign issue for the consideration of the nation the most significant redeployment of American troops abroad since the Korean War.
The president would have been culpable had he not brought it up. Not only is there an obvious policy difference between the two parties, but a president should put it on the table if he is to earn the mandate to carry out so radical a plan after the election.
The New York Times editorial page offered this reason for maintaining the status quo: Otherwise, ``the military will also lose the advantage that comes with giving large numbers of its men and women the experience of living in other cultures.'' Seventy-thousand GIs parked in Stuttgart practicing their German and listening to Wagner. Finally a military deployment The New York Times can support.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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