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Wartime Withdrawal

Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page A14

"IT'S IMPORTANT we send the right signals when we speak here in America," President Bush said yesterday during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati. He was admonishing his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, for saying that he would seek to reduce troop levels in Iraq within six months of taking office. "I think that sends the wrong signal," Mr. Bush said. That's a reasonable caution, in our view, though it blurs Mr. Kerry's proper caveat that his standards would be "the stability of Iraq, the ability to have the elections, and the training and transformation of the Iraqi security force itself."

What is strange, though, is that Mr. Bush delivered his warning and then, in the same speech, chose to advertise a new global troop deployment plan as a way to "bring home about 60,000 to 70,000 uniformed personnel." Once again Mr. Bush seeks to convince Americans that they can fight a global war on terrorism without the sacrifices that war normally entails. Already he has refused to shoulder fiscal responsibility for the military decisions he has made, sentencing the nation to growing deficits and punishing interest costs (see below). As the war in Iraq turned nastier and lasted longer than he predicted, Mr. Bush refused to support a needed increase in the size of the Army, ensuring that the pain of his miscalculations would increasingly fall on active-duty, National Guard and reserve soldiers sent into combat for more and longer stretches than expected. Now, even as he warns of an unending battle against terrorists, he promises that "our service members will have more time on the home front."

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Mr. Bush's campaign speech yesterday in some ways sold short the results of a serious, years-long Pentagon review of military posture. The Pentagon says that Cold War structures must give way to a 21st-century force, and we agree. The armed forces should become more agile and deployable, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been arguing from the beginning of this term. It may well make sense for troops to spend more time training in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, closer to today's battlegrounds, rather than in Germany. Some redeployments no doubt also make sense, to respond to changing threats, reduce fixed-base vulnerabilities or political irritants (as in Seoul), and take advantage of new technologies.

But in substance as well as rhetoric, the Bush plan raises questions. The military already has shrunk substantially in size and in its presence in Western Europe since the end of the Cold War. About 400,000 uniformed personnel out of 1.5 million serve abroad, but about half of those are in or around the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the administration would pull out about one-third of the 37,500 troops stationed in South Korea and about half of the 100,000 based in Europe.

This is a particularly bad idea in Asia. North Korea has pressed for U.S. troop withdrawals for years; now that it is misbehaving in the nuclear field, it receives a reward, and for no concessions. China is increasingly throwing its weight around Southeast Asia; countries there that want a U.S. counterbalance, even if they do not always dare say so, will become less confident. Whoever is president in the next four years will be challenged by China's anger at an increasingly assertive Taiwan; reducing U.S. troop strength in the neighborhood cannot help him cope with that challenge.

Europe is less tense, but a U.S. presence is important nonetheless. The conflicts of the past decade have been in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq; Africa is of increasing concern; none of these is closer to Kansas than to Germany.

Pentagon officials began planning this redeployment before the Iraq war, to bring greater rationality to force posture, not to punish allies that opposed the war or free up soldiers for the fight there. But it can and must be seen now in the context of a war that has stretched the Army dangerously. The proper response is to recruit more soldiers. Mr. Bush's formulation does not bolster confidence in American global leadership.

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