Commentary

Clearing the Decks for War

President Bush has emphasized that the war against terrorism will be lengthy and difficult, despite the initial successes in Afghanistan. He’s right. That’s why it is imperative that the United States promptly clear the decks for war. We must jettison obsolete or unnecessary commitments and expenditures. And that includes our unneeded military presence in certain areas around the globe.

When a family suffers an unexpected hardship or tragedy, it does not continue with business as usual, leaving its priorities and spending patterns unchanged. A nation must alter its priorities when facing similar difficulties. For America, the war against the terrorists who committed the Sept. 11 attacks will be the top priority for the foreseeable future. Yet instead of reducing or eliminating less essential commitments, Washington seems inclined to merely pile the new commitments on top of the old.

There are numerous candidates for elimination. In the realm of security affairs, three such candidates stand out.

Terminate the nation-building missions in the Balkans. Those ventures were foolish and unnecessary to begin with. Despite the exertions of America and its NATO allies, Bosnia is no closer to being a viable country today than it was when the Dayton peace agreement was signed six years ago. The NATO intervention in Kosovo merely strengthened the hand of Albanian nationalists who want to create a Greater Albania and who have recently stirred up trouble across the border in Macedonia. The missions in Bosnia and Kosovo cost the United States nearly $6 billion a year. That money, as well as the military personnel tied down in useless peacekeeping tasks, could be used far more effectively to prosecute the war against terrorism.

Withdraw the 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in Western Europe. That troop presence is an obsolete commitment inherited from the Cold War. The U.S. forces are apparently on duty to prevent an invasion of Western Europe by a Warsaw Pact that no longer exists led by a Soviet Union that no longer exists. How tank divisions stationed in Germany benefit the security of the United States is a mystery. Those units should be withdrawn and demobilized and some of the personnel reassigned to lighter, more mobile units that would be relevant in the fight against terrorism. Such a move would save billions of dollars.

Withdraw the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. That troop presence is another obsolete, Cold War era obligation. South Korea faces only one adversary: communist North Korea. Yet South Korea has twice the population and an economy at least 30 times larger than its adversary. A nation with those characteristics should certainly be able to defend itself. Instead, South Korea chooses to under-invest in defense and remain dependent on the United States for major portions of its military capabilities. U.S. leaders should inform their South Korean counterparts that the days of free riding on the U.S. security guarantee are over. America has its own war to wage, and it can no longer afford to subsidize prosperous security clients.

It is uncertain whether the United States would need to redirect all of the savings from terminating obsolete or unnecessary overseas commitments to the war on terrorism. Clearly, some additional resources ought to be devoted to beefing up our special forces units and intelligence gathering and evaluation capabilities. They have been shortchanged for years, and yet they are the front-line forces in the fight against terrorism.

But there may well be some money left over. That is not a bad thing. At the very least, such savings might head off the looming prospect of a return to large federal budget deficits. The savings might be enough to give the beleaguered American taxpayer a modest break. But however the money is used, it would be better than the current wasteful situation.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 13 books on international affairs.