MUNICH — In a rare joint appearance overseas, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reassure European allies that the United States will not diminish its security relationship with the continent, even as it withdraws troops and places a higher priority on Asia.
“We will maintain a robust presence in Europe,” Panetta said Saturday at the annual Munich Security Conference. “That’s not only because the peace and prosperity of Europe is critically important to the United States, but because Europe remains our security partner, our partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world.”
The Obama administration last month announced that it would eliminate two of four Army combat brigades stationed in Europe, partly to meet new budget constraints but also as it places a renewed emphasis on Asia while maintaining a military presence in the Middle East.
Panetta described the changes in Europe as relatively minor. The U.S. military has about 80,000 forces based on the continent, but that number will dwindle to about 70,000.
Clinton, meanwhile, urged the Europeans to maintain diplomatic pressure against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who faces an increasingly bloody rebellion and uncertainty about how long he can remain in power.
“As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, America and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder,” she said. “We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria.”
Clinton and Panetta both told European leaders attending the Munich conference that the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” of its security policy to emphasize Asia would not diminish NATO or transatlantic relations.
Although the troop cuts announced last month are relatively small, some Europeans wondered whether they are the first round and whether more are in the works.
The Obama administration is implementing $487 billion in cuts to projected defense spending over the next decade. But further reductions could come. Under a deficit-control deal reached by the White House and Congress in August, the Pentagon could be forced to cut an additional $500 billion if lawmakers cannot agree by January 2013 on an alternative plan to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Panetta called that possibility “a crazy formula” and said it would “devastate our national defense.” He said the Obama administration was ignoring it under the assumption that lawmakers would agree to another plan before next year.