A shrinking global footprint for US forces

In the wake of war, the Pentagon is positioned to rethink where troops are based abroad as well as military priorities.

Victory in Iraq might well lead to the most profound shuffling of US military deployments overseas in a generation.

Units from old NATO bases in Germany might begin trickling south and east, towards Rumania, Bulgaria, and other nations eager to serve as jumping-off points for US force projection in the Middle East and Asia. The American presence in Saudi Arabia - long a complicating factor in US-Arab relations - will almost certainly be curtailed.

The Pentagon's goal: shrink its footprintin foreign lands, but retain enough power and flexibility to defend American interests.

"I'd be surprised if there wasn't a lot of change all over the place," says Tom Donnelly, a national-security expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Signs of this change are already evident. In Turkey, for instance, the US Air Force has begun withdrawal of the expeditionary package of warplanes which has been based there since 1991 to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

Deployment to Turkey's Incirlik Air Base has long been a rite of passage for the Air Force fighter-aircraft community. A skeleton crew will likely remain, but now the reason for keeping 50 to 80 airplanes at Incirlik at all times is gone.Less certain is what the US military presence will be in the long run.

Over the weekend, reports indicated that the Pentagon was interested in maintaining four bases there - but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the US has no plans for a permanent military presence in Iraq. "I have never heard the subject of a permanent base in Iraq discussed," he said.

But without a long-term presence in Iraq, the US military might have to keep its bases on the Arabian Peninsula, which has long been a rallying point for Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist elements. The Pentagon would be loath to lose the expensive command-and-control center it has built up over the past decade at Prince Sultan Air Base, far from Saudi population centers.

But much of the buildup was originally justified as a means of protecting Gulf nations against Iraqi attack. With that threat removed, it could be time to decamp for other climes.

Such a move could ease pressure on the Saudi regime, as the US presence has become unpopular even with many Saudi moderates. "Some folks in Saudi Arabia might like us a whole lot better if we left," says Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

If, despite Mr. Rumsfeld's denials, the US were to refocus its military center of gravity northward to Iraq, it would certainly have strategic repercussions.

Iraq's acceptance of American forces - which, granted, is a dubious prospect given that no new Iraqi regime has emerged - would suddenly give Washington a land platform between Syria and Iran.

The Syrian Baathist regime, for one, might begin feeling pressure not just to end support for terrorism, but to do something about its long-term occupation of Lebanon. Reaction in Iran, a nation with which the US has a complicated relationship, and whose internal politics are in turmoil, is more difficult to predict.

With a bigger footprint in Iraq, the US would also gain greater access to a region where it has been relatively limited since the days of Iran's pro-US Shah. That is a "good thing," says Mr. Donnelly. "We're going to be operating in this region for a long time."

Deployments in what Rumsfeld dismissively referred to as "old Europe" might change as well, as the US increasingly focuses on its interests in the arc of unrest that runs from the Red Sea, up through the Arabian peninsula and Pakistan, and into the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia.

For US planners, one revelation of the Iraq war was the eagerness with which nations of the former eastern bloc offered aid and support. Romania served as an important relay base for airlifters on their way to the region, for instance. Bulgaria offered similar support.

Hungary offered a base that was used as a training ground for Iraqi exiles before they were shipped back to their native land. And Poland sent commando forces that helped the US and Britain secure offshore oil installations before Hussein's regime could destroy them.

Currently, the US retains sizable numbers of ground and air forces at bases in Germany. That might soon change, especially if Germany's opposition to the war in Iraq marks the beginning of an increasing distance between the NATO partners.

The nature of US deployments in the coming geopolitical world is something that US has under discussion. It's unlikely that major changes - such as a withdrawal from Germany - would come quickly, however.

"That will take some time to sort through," said Secretary Rumsfeld recently.

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