Policy review needed: why US troops in Europe?

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IT is a safe guess that Congress will soon review United States troop levels in Europe. The reasons are well known: a belief that Europe can afford to contribute more to its defense, a desire for flexibility to redeploy US forces elsewhere, the search to cut federal spending, and a desire by some to be relieved of the burdens of a superpower. The Congress supports the US commitment to NATO and Europe's security, but 40 years after the first articulation of this policy it is natural for members to ask why US troops remain in Europe.

I believe that public review and debate on this issue is a positive development. It is possible that new answers to old questions may not be persuasive, and there will be a push to reduce the US troop commitment. But it is equally possible that the debate will reaffirm our present policy.

Congress needs answers to some key questions:

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Why are we in Europe? Does the rationale of 1949 still apply? The world has changed a great deal since that time, but most analysts agree that a US troop presence is still the central component of maintaining the East-West military balance in Europe. US troops tie America's nuclear deterrent to Europe's defense, and are visible proof of the close link between Europe and the US.

What would be the reaction of the allies to troop reductions? There is little doubt that the allies would be shaken by the reduction in the US commitment. Some worry that without firm US leadership, NATO will drift closer toward neutralism. This view is not to be dismissed lightly, but it may underestimate our allies. Recent statements by the British, French, and West German governments show growing recognition of the need to do more for their own defense. The ``Europeanization'' of NATO's defense has become a popular theme within Europe on both the right and the left. Nevertheless, whether troop reductions would spur the Europeans to do more, or less, for their own defense is unclear.

What would be the Soviet reaction? The usual answer is that a reduction of US troops would lead the Soviets to use their conventional superiority to intimidate or blackmail Western Europe. That answer may be a little less clear today. Mikhail Gorbachev might not risk his domestic programs or his improving image in Western Europe by invoking such threats. Still, the West must look beyond Mr. Gorbachev and the nice sounds of glasnost. As long as Soviet forces remain in Europe, some level of US forces should remain, too. US troops should be withdrawn only in the context of negotiations for mutual reductions in force levels.

How many troops, if any, should be removed? No one in the Congress seriously supports removing all troops; the question is how many troops could be removed without jeopardizing mutual security. Some have suggested troop reductions of some 100,000, but there is no informed judgment as to how such a cut would affect NATO's defenses. Today there are 326,000 US troops in Europe, and US troop levels have fluctuated from a postwar high of 427,000 in the early 1950s to a low of 291,000 during the Vietnam war. The Congress is left wondering whether there is an exact relationship between US troop levels in Europe and a stable military balance.

Most observers nonetheless believe that a significant US presence, whatever its exact size, must be part of a large NATO conventional force structure. If war breaks out, a substantial number of US troops need to be on the scene in Europe quickly, not an ocean away. NATO already relies on a strategy calling for a mass reinforcement of troops moved across the Atlantic; we should not increase that reliance further. Convoys may have worked well in World War II, but it is doubtful that they would be as timely or work as well today, given growing Soviet naval and air power.

What is the effect of arms control? NATO faces the prospect of an intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) agreement and the removal of all US and Soviet nuclear missiles from Europe except short-range ``battlefield'' weapons. This will mean greater NATO reliance on conventional forces for European defense. Can NATO remain secure if INF systems in Europe are eliminated and there are large, unilateral reductions in US troop levels? The likely answer is ``no.''

Will troop reductions save the US money? The answer is ``yes,'' but only if the US demobilizes forces. To return and retain troops in the US would involve high initial costs because of transportation, the upgrading and construction of facilities, and the need to increase lift capacity to get troops back to Europe quickly in case of war. Placing troops elsewhere outside the US would not be cheap, either, for similar reasons. Countries granting base rights tend to set a price which the US does not have to pay in Central Europe.

Once Congress considers troop reductions, answers to the questions posed above suggest that it may not land that far from present US policy. Some may see this as redesigning the wheel. I believe it is characterized more accurately as Congress's carrying out its responsibilities for public education and periodic policy review. As the Iran-contra episode illustrated, this process is essential if policies are to succeed.

It is time to stop the view that it is dangerous to raise the issue of troop reductions and thus open a Pandora's box. This attitude shows little confidence in the ability of Congress to study an issue and develop legislation serving the national interest. Congress is not demanding that the troops come home; it is merely inquiring why they must continue to stay. If there are good reasons for leaving US forces in Europe at present or different levels, the Congress will support that policy. NATO and the US commitment to NATO will be the better for it.

Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.

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