Der SPIEGEL

Der SPIEGEL

08/23/2004 12:00 AM

USA

Rumsfeld's Withdrawal

Presidential candidates Bush and Kerry are arguing about the long-planned withdrawal of troops from Europe and Asia. The White House wants to implement a new military strategy that makes quick victory for American weapons a virtual certainty, while making it more difficult to keep the peace.

Grey-haired men in their olive-green uniforms, some wearing their medals for bravery in combat, are popping up everywhere. They stand in a half-circle behind John Kerry, while he tells his audience, in emotional words, about his own former "band of brothers" in Vietnam. For the Democratic presidential candidate, they serve as living proof that America would be in good hands with Kerry, the decorated war hero.

Meanwhile, a few war veterans always show up whenever George W. Bush makes an appearance, and he always greets them with obvious enthusiasm. They have made it their mission to destroy the halo Kerry seems to wear, thanks to his days as a lieutenant and boat commander. According to a few self-appointed star witnesses from the days in the Mekong Delta, it’s all lies, all hype, and Kerry didn’t really earn the medals for bravery in combat with the enemy.

There are still about 25 million veterans from America’s last few wars. The oldest, a dying generation, survived World War II and the Korean War. The more than eight million Vietnam veterans are just reaching retirement age. In contrast, veterans of the two Iraq wars, the one in 1991 and the current conflict, are still in their prime. And in this election, which, for the first time in a long time, is just as much about foreign policy as it is about the economy and prosperity, veterans old and young are suddenly a hotly contested group of people.

The "Veterans of Foreign Wars" is one of the largest and most effective organizations of these former soldiers. Last week they held a conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of the swing states where the election will be decided. No wonder the president paid them a visit, followed by candidate Kerry two days later.

Bush took advantage of the opportunity to announce that he plans to bring back "the boys." He wasn't referring to Iraq, but instead to tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe and Asia. This is no great surprise, because the White House and the Pentagon had both already announced this intention half a year ago.

Candidate Kerry is known for appreciating nuances, and no one finds this more amusing than the president, who prefers to look at things in black and white. Furthermore, for decades the Democrats have had to contend with the reputation of being weaklings when it comes to America's security and the use of military force to defend its interests. This is why the opportunity that presented itself to Kerry to show vigorous decisiveness and overtake the Republican president on the right was both welcome and unexpected.

He told the veterans in Cincinnati that Bush "has hastily announced a plan" that would alienate the Europeans even further and would also have disastrous consequences for already difficult negotiations with North Korea, which is threatening to build nuclear weapons - and this at a time "in which North Korea is more dangerous than ever before since the end of the Korean War." Thus, said Kerry, his voice trembling, America is fueling "doubts as to its intentions and its commitment."

Two days earlier, the veterans had cheered the president, and now they were cheering his opponent.

Under the influence of the election, the world seems to be standing on its head in America. The Republicans, who are notorious for supporting concentrated military presence in as many locations as possible, want to pull out 70,000 troops and their 100,000 family members from Europe and Asia. The reasons for the planned withdrawal, put forward by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, certainly make sense: the old military logic, which revolves around large, strong alliances and their constant presence in crisis zones, such as the former divided Germany, no longer applies.

Now that the Cold War is over, flexibility - the ability to quickly shift troops to crisis regions that fluctuate just as quickly - is in demand, and aircraft carriers and troop transport aircraft are now more important than old, large garrison towns such as Würzburg.

Under the new American military doctrine, bases will now be treated purely as logistical hubs for rapid troop deployment. They are preferably small and are intended to secure the "arc of instability." This is what US military strategist Andrew Krepinevich calls the crisis zone extending from the Black Sea across the entire Middle East, and continuing through the tense region of the Indian subcontinent and into the Far East. In the Far East, Washington sees a potentially acute crisis developing in North Korea and a rapidly growing global competitor in China.

Such bases can be quickly brought up to speed as soon as this is made necessary by a given situation, such as the fight against terrorism. In the Gulf state of Qatar, for example, the military headquarters for American forces in Iraq was quickly built up as soon as it became evident that Saudi Arabia was no longer an option.

Kerry's Democrats have always been considered proponents of military disarmament and troop withdrawal, especially since the end of the Cold War. The candidate lived up to this reputation when he recently announced that, as president, he would withdraw troops from Iraq within six months. The White House' response was that this would constitute a betrayal of national interests. But now Kerry has leveled the same accusation against the current president.

From Kerry's perspective, the planned redeployment of troops is in fact tantamount to withdrawal from a position of weakness, because Bush has taken the imperial approach of wearing out the military's resources. About 400,000 of the US' total military force of 1.4 million troops are currently serving overseas. 100,000 are stationed in Europe, more than two-thirds at bases in Germany. Of the 100,000 GIs in East Asia, about 40,000 are stationed in Japan, and almost as many in South Korea.

Most of the remaining troops stationed overseas have already been relocated to meet new strategic demands: as combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as support troops in the Persian Gulf region, and in Central Asia. The Navy alone has 70,000 troops sailing the world's seas. The US military has reached the limits of its capacity.

The announced withdrawal offers little relief, as it is not scheduled to begin until two years from now. And it will also burden the Pentagon with new costs of stationing troops overseas. German taxpayers pay at least a billion Euros a year to support the just under 100,000 Americans stationed in Germany. In the future, the Americans will bear the brunt of the cost of building barracks, apartment buildings, schools and other infrastructure-related facilities for those troops they now intend to bring home from overseas.

At its core, however, the conflict between Bush and Kerry is about how the indisputably superior superpower is to perform its unique role. President Bush is an admitted unilateralist who believes that America should defend its freedom to act at all costs. In contrast, his challenger identifies himself as a multilateralist. Kerry views Iraq as a perfect example of how imperial arrogance can alienate the rest of the world, to America's detriment. He repeatedly emphasizes that he intends to reconcile the superpower with its allies.

However, the withdrawal from Europe cannot be portrayed as a purely unilateral act. NATO disputes that in doing so America would weaken the alliance. And the Pentagon stresses that one of the US' largest military entities, a "Strycker" brigade, should be sent to Germany to replace two divisions being pulled out.

Thus, the further withdrawal of troops can hardly be classified as a slap in the face, even though Rumsfeld and Bush have already threatened the Germans with consequences for their lack of cooperation in the Iraq war. From a military and strategic point of view, the withdrawal of the two large US military divisions headquartered in Würzburg and Wiesbaden is justifiable. That's because Germany is fortunately no longer part of a hotly contested frontier of the Cold War, constantly at risk of being attacked by waves of Soviet tanks and troops armed to the teeth.

Things are different in Asia. North Korea and China continue to deploy millions of combat-ready ground troops and tremendous tank arsenals along their borders. Seoul's military commanders worry that if the tensions along the Korean demilitarized zone were to erupt into a full-scale war, the entire south could be overrun by a wave of combat troops within days. For this reason, the South Korean military command is begging Washington to at least postpone its plan to redeploy to Iraq at least one of the two US brigades stationed along the Korean DMZ. The US plans to move the second brigade to the far southern tip of the peninsula, enabling it to launch a counteroffensive in the event of a war.

Even some American military leaders see the US withdrawal as the "wrong signal." They believe that this would only encourage North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to carry on his policy of nuclear armament. And the administration in Beijing could interpret the troop cutbacks as an expression of Washington's willingness to side with Taiwan in China's long-standing dispute with the beleaguered island republic.

However, many experts believe that the withdrawal is in fact the consequence of a new military strategy, one that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried out in Afghanistan and Iraq and with which, at least initially, the Americans were very successful. In both countries, the Americans, with minimal troop levels, managed to topple established regimes which, to some extent, even had troops with combat experience at their disposal.

The effective use of special forces, the availability of aerial and space-based reconnaissance in real time, and the overwhelming success of new precision-guided weapons are all elements of the so-called "transformation" with which Rumsfeld intends to make the superpower invincible in the new millennium.

However, the strategic shift made necessary by the recently announced troop withdrawal is reaching its limits in precisely those theaters of war where it was so successfully implemented to begin with. The small, mobile units of assault forces with their state-of-the-art equipment are proving to be almost completely ineffective in bringing peace to a nation that was conquered militarily.

In Iraq and in the Hindu Kush, Rumsfeld is now paying the price for having ignored the warnings of experienced generals, such as former military commander Eric Shinseki, who was demoted after calling for several hundred thousand occupation troops for Iraq. Instead, larger units are now being brought home and even disbanded.

For this reason, critics even see Rumsfeld's doctrine of rapid victory using increasingly accurate precision-guided weapons and ever-shrinking invasion forces as the fundamental reason behind an unforeseeable prolongation of conflicts. They believe that an enemy who is helpless and defenseless on the battlefield is virtually forced to respond with an asymmetric approach. "Although military victory is certain, it makes peace impossible," writes the French intellectual publication "Le Monde diplomatique."

While Washington strives to annihilate its opponents with as little loss of life among its troops and civilians, the enemy is taking the opposite approach: acts of terror intended to produce as much collateral damage as possible can strike the superpower in places where technological superiority offers no protection - in New York's World Trade Center and in the downtown areas of Iraqi cities, where car bombs are exploding almost daily.

SIEGESMUND VON ILSEMANN, GERHARD SPÖRL

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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