June 11, 2008

Unfinished Business: U.S. Overseas Military Presence in the 21st Century

By Michael O’Hanlon

The next American president will inherit an overseas military base realignment process begun in the first term of the George W. Bush administration. This realignment, guided by an effort known as the Global Posture Review (GPR), was perhaps former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld s chief intellectual and policy accomplishment during his six-year tenure at the Pentagon. Unlike his likely warfighting legacy, particularly in regard to Iraq, the GPR is on generally sound conceptual foundations. But a successful outcome for the Global Posture Review, roughly halfway implemented as of early 2008, will depend on the next U.S. administration refining numerous rough edges of the current plan and redefining the broader national security policy context in which any base realignment will inevitably be viewed.

In the end, about 70,000 American military personnel will be relocated as a result of the GPR, not counting those directly affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. While this realignment is not comparable in magnitude to what happened after World War II, or even after the Cold War, it is nonetheless a major milestone in American strategic policy. To date, the U.S. armed forces are about halfway through reductions and other changes in their European ground force capabilities. They are well underway with plans to reduce and relocate the American military presence in Korea. Changes in Japan are coming slowly, but that is probably acceptable given that the U.S.-Japan alliance is in generally good shape. New capabilities are being deployed on Guam and in Africa, building on ideas first formulated in the Clinton administration that the Bush administration has further developed, often with considerable creativity and energy.

The GPR s objectives are to enhance American military capability and flexibility for the so-called long war on terror, to deal with major shifts in the global alignment of power in Asia, to keep traditional partnerships strong while building up new partnerships with countries of Eastern Europe and Africa and parts of Central Asia, and to improve the quality of life for American military personnel.

But even if the GPR seeks the right goals and is undergirded by sensible overall logic, the time is right for a review of the review. There are several significant problems in its design and execution, due in part to Rumsfeld s domination of the process, particularly in the early stages: despite the fact that an effort such as the GPR should be thoroughly interagency in character, State Department officials and American allies were not adequately consulted. That leaves much to do for a new administration in improving a conceptually sound, but also rather troubled, process of global posture realignment.

South Korea is where Rumsfeld s domination of the GPR process caused the most harm, on top of the often acrimonious relationship between Washington and Seoul throughout this decade to date. In Europe, plans to move forces to Romania and Bulgaria on a rotating basis could add unwisely to the deployment burdens of an already overstretched Army and Marine Corps if implemented prematurely; such changes should therefore not take full effect until the combined burden of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions has lessened. Planned cutbacks in Germany would go too far given America s need to keep improving interoperability with its major allies. There is no reason to have large and heavy American ground forces in Germany, but the case for keeping at least a single heavy brigade is strong. Moreover, the Bush administration s newfound willingness to increase the size of the active Army makes it more likely that added forces will be kept in Europe, largely because it will be difficult to find adequate numbers of places to station them in the United States for the foreseeable future...

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  • Michael O’Hanlon

    CNAS Board of Advisor, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

    Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution  where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, homelan...