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In Pentagon's 'pivot' toward Asia, has Europe been forgotten?

President Obama is pushing the Pentagon to look toward Asia, but some worry that US attention could overbalance away from Europe, which remains the home of many core allies.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / November 5, 2012



Washington

As the Pentagon sets its strategic sights on the Asia-Pacific region – warning of the rise of China and the growing importance of naval power – some US military commanders are concerned about the fate of America’s relationships with its traditional allies in Europe.

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Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who heads US Army Europe, recalls a recent visit he made to Ukraine with the US secretary of the Army.

“He asked me specifically, ‘Hey, how’s the Ukranian Army doing?” General Hertling said at a talk at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies last month. “I said, ‘Well, Mr. Secretary, they still have some challenges with corruption, and they still have some problems with training, and their leadership is still a little bit more geared towards the former Soviet states than a new transformative government.’  "

“He said, ‘So why the heck are we training with them?’ And I said, ‘Well, because they’d be whole lot worse if we weren’t.’ ”

The point, US military commanders say, is that Europe – both “old” and “new” – are vital to US national security. In a world were multilateral action is increasingly important, military cooperation with European powers can pave the way to peace. And relations with former Soviet states have proven useful.

Yet the number of US troops in Europe continues to diminish, from nearly a quarter of a million in 1975 at the height of the Cold War to an expected 30,000 in 2015. “Thirty thousand soldiers can do a lot of things,” Hertling said. “If they’re positioned to do the right kinds of things.” 

The problem is that it’s easy to forget the region is in the midst of a presidential election in which Europe was mentioned only once during the debates – and that was in the context of the need for the Pentagon to “pivot” its focus from Europe to the Pacific. 

When Hertling heard President Obama use that word “pivot” in discussing European policy, “it was disconcerting,” he said at a talk at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies last month.

“If we're talking about a ‘rebalancing,’ getting it right in all areas, I'm OK,” Hertling added. “If you're talking about completely taking away from one and giving to another, than I'm concerned about that from a military perspective.”

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