Bush's Withdrawal From the World

By Ronald D. Asmus

The Washington Post

Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page A19

Harry Truman must be turning over in his grave.

The planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe and Asia that President Bush announced this week, if allowed to stand, could lead to the demise of the United States' key alliances across the globe, including the one that Truman considered his greatest foreign policy accomplishment: NATO.

The president proposes something that generations of U.S. diplomats and soldiers fought to prevent and that our adversaries sought unsuccessfully to achieve: radical reduction of U.S. political and military influence on the European and Asian continents. The Bush message, delivered at a campaign rally, also smells of political opportunism. Under pressure but unable to withdraw troops from Iraq, the president has instead reached for what his advisers hope is the next best thing politically -- a pledge to bring the boys home from Europe and Asia.

Whether this is good or bad politics remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that it is bad strategy and bad diplomacy, for which the United States is likely to pay a heavy price. The reasons are fairly simple. In Europe after the Cold War, the United States decided to significantly reduce its former troop levels but to leave sufficient military forces on the ground to accomplish three objectives: help ensure that peace and stability on the continent would endure; have the capacity to support NATO and European Union expansion and project the communities of democracies eastward; and provide the political and military glue to enable our allies to reorient themselves militarily and prepare, together with the United States, to address new conflicts beyond the continent's borders.

Each of these goals remains important. Each will be undercut by the president's plan. With transatlantic relations badly frayed, Russia turning away from democracy and the United States facing the challenge of projecting stability from the Balkans to the Black Sea, Washington should be putting forward a plan to repair the transatlantic alliance, not ruin it.

In Asia the stakes are just as high and the challenges perhaps greater. There the United States faces the long-term challenge of managing the rise of China as a great power. North Korea's eventual collapse and the unification of Korea will raise the question of that country's future geopolitical orientation. And such seismic events will undoubtedly have a considerable impact on the evolution of Japan's role and orientation as well.

U.S. diplomats will have their hands full over the next decade or two trying to win the war on terrorism and help manage these multiple strategic transitions -- and will need every ounce of U.S. political and military leverage and muscle if they are to get it right. In an act of diplomatic hara-kiri, the president proposes to destroy one of the key pillars of U.S. influence just when this kind of leverage and influence is likely to be needed the most.

The president's plan is unfortunately further evidence of the strategic myopia that has afflicted this administration and is undercutting the United States' standing in the world. At a time when we should be mobilizing and reinvigorating our alliances in Europe and Asia, we are dismantling them. Instead of creating multilateral structures to mobilize the world in a common struggle against terrorism and new anti-Western ideologies and movements, we opt for a unilateral course that leaves us with fewer friends. As opposed to balancing the political and military requirements of a new era and coming up with a new troop deployment plan that meets both needs, the administration allows the Pentagon to ride roughshod over broader U.S. strategy and diplomacy and destroy the work of generations of diplomats and soldiers.

Is there room for reconfiguring the U.S. military deployment plan overseas and modernizing it for a new era? Of course, there is. But such a review must also be part of a new strategic approach to alliance-building to confront the new threats we face. It must take into account our political and military requirements and the views of our allies. The president should have given a speech in Ohio on how he planned to repair the United States' alliances for the future -- and our new global military posture should reflect that goal as well. Why has no administration official come forward with any ideas on repairing the United States' alliance relationships?

Sen. John Kerry has recognized that the lesson of Sept. 11 is that the U.S. need for allies is going up, not down. He has pledged to make the reinvigoration of U.S. alliances a foreign policy priority. He has claimed that his election would allow for a "fresh start" and close a remarkably divisive chapter in relations with many of our close allies. There is little doubt that Kerry's election would be enthusiastically welcomed in both Europe and Asia. But it is time for the senator to take the next step and lay out a concrete plan for how his administration would reverse the damage done by President Bush and reinvigorate the United States' alliances to meet the dangers we face. Part of that plan should be to freeze and review the ill-conceived plan the president put forth this week in Ohio.

The writer, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. The views here are his own.