Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense, miffed because West European countries are ignoring U.S. objections and going ahead with plans to hook into the Soviet natural gas pipeline, said yesterday that he may introduce a resolution this year to withdraw American troops from Europe.
"Why should we support defense in that whole area if they say business as usual and life as usual?" Stevens asked at a hearing on the 1983 defense budget, as he complained that the Europeans were making themselves dependent on the Russians for 20 percent of their energy.
Stevens warned that if he does not introduce a withdrawal resolution, others will. But both Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while deploring the European hook-up to the Soviet gas line, urged that no U.S. troops be brought home.
Weinberger said he was especially worried about the prospects of the Soviets receiving "up to $10 billion in hard currency" from the gas pipeline project that could be invested in weapons.
In arguing against withdrawal, Weinberger said the 337,000 troops in Europe "serve our own interests by being there." He added that the cost of defending the United States would probably rise "if we didn't have the opportunity to defend in the forward area," that is, Western Europe.
Added Jones: "We don't respond well to threats from our allies."
The primary purpose of American troops in Europe "is for the defense of the United States. We've seen what isolation has done to us in two world wars. If we lost Europe, it would be a tragedy," Jones said.
Stevens replied that "I'm not convinced we're in a situation comparable to World War II." He said that if the West Europeans come to regard the North Atlantic Treaty Organization border as Americans now regard the Canadian border, "I don't see why we should have troops there at all."
"It's time to reexamine our commitment" to Western Europe, Stevens said, in light of "the willingness of the West Europeans to become increasingly dependent on the Soviets for their daily commerce and daily life."
Noting that he had voted against previous attempts by former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) to withdraw American troops from Europe, Stevens, the second-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership, said that he feels differently about that proposition today. If a subcommittee staff analysis now under way confirms his views, he said, he will introduce a similar resolution. "If I don't do it, somebody else will," Stevens predicted.
Mansfield offered two amendments in 1974, one to bring home 125,000 troops from Europe and the other to withdraw 76,000. The Senate voted 54 to 35 against the first amendment and 46 to 44 against the second.
Stevens said he was particularly irked by the fact that the Soviet gas pipeline project is racing ahead while the effort to pipe natural gas from the Alaskan oil fields in Prudhoe Bay to the central United States remains stalled.
Pressed by reporters after the hearing about when and how a troop withdrawal resolution might be introduced, Stevens left himself some wiggle room, declaring: "We're not saying we're going to do it; we're going to take another look at it."
None of the three other senators at yesterday's hearing took issue with Stevens. Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), ranking minority member on the subcommittee, did not commit himself to supporting a troop withdrawal resolution but declared that the pipeline to be built from the Soviet Union to Western Europe "is one of the most frightening things" because of the dependency it will establish.
Despite the protests of the U.S. government against the pipeline, Stennis complained, the Europeans "went ahead and did it anyway. They didn't think we'd do anything about it. It's very serious. It's got to be explained further and better."
After Weinberger had testified that the valves on the gas pipeline would be under the control of the Soviets, Stevens asked Weinberger to check if the Soviets could turn off the power for American military bases in Europe. Said Stevens:
"If they can turn off our lights, we ought to be getting the devil out of there."
Two members of the hawkish House Armed Services Committee said at a separate hearing yesterday that Western Europe's relaxed attitude toward the Soviet threat, together with anti-Americanism, make them inclined to join in demands to bring some American troops home.
"If they don't want us there, let's just pull back," suggested Rep. William L. Dickinson of Alabama, ranking Republican on the committee.
"Complacency seems to be present in so many of our NATO countries," said Rep. Bill Nichols (D-Ala.), "I find myself wondering if it's time to whistle up the dogs, put the chairs in the wagon and tell the troops to come home."
"Don't do that," pleaded Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, head of the U.S. European Command, who appeared before the committee. Rogers said that there is indeed a "transatlantic mutual unhappiness" these days between the United States and Europe, but warned it would be "disastrous" to let this lead to troop withdrawals. The Soviets would end up dominating Europe, he said, without firing a shot.