The case for keeping American troops in Europe

HENRY Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski should know better. They should know only too well that the substantial withdrawal of American troops from Europe that they are now advocating is dangerous and that they are lending their voices to an irresponsible chorus of alliance-bashing and neo-isolationism.

Indeed, when they held positions of responsibility and power -- Mr. Kissinger as secretary of state in the Nixon-Ford administrations and Mr. Brzezinski as national-security adviser in the Carter administration -- they would have been the first to denounce as irresponsible the very arguments they are advancing today.

What has changed so dramatically that Kissinger and Brzezinski feel impelled to argue that what was wrong in the 1970s is right in the 1980s? The only noteworthy change that one can discern is not in the strategic balance in Europe but in the status of these two scholars, in that neither any longer holds a position of responsibility. Both are spectators quarterbacking from the sidelines but with a burning desire to return to the corridors of power.

Basically, both are arguing today that American troops -- 100,000, Brzezinski says -- should be phased out of Europe to contribute to a kind of global firefighting force based in the United States. They contend that the commitment of 325,000 US troops to the defense of Europe gravely impairs this country's ability to respond to security threats elsewhere in the world because of recurrent allied opposition to US action outside the NATO area.

They advance a second argument for pulling US troops back from the Continent. This move, they maintain, would prod the West Europeans to organize an autonomous European Defense Community to gradually assume responsibility for their own defense. And this, in Brzezinski's view, would eventually bring the two halves of Europe together in a joint security arrangement, with the two superpowers fading into the background.

Both of the Kissinger-Brzezinski arguments are flawed -- dangerously flawed -- and reflect serious misconceptions about American and European political realities.

The first misconception involves the notion that 100,000 American troops withdrawn from Europe would be organized into mobile firefighting units based in the US. At a time of acute pressure on defense budgets, the reality is that the Pentagon has little hope of obtaining the hundreds of millions of additional dollars for bases and other infrastructure required to station these forces in the US. Units that come home are almost certain to be demobilized rather than assigned to a strategic reserve, thus reducing rather than expanding America's military flexibility internationally.

A second Kissinger-Brzezinski misconception involves the assumption that the American pullback would induce the West Europeans to form their own defense community and that this would open the door to the reunification of Europe. The movement for a European Defense Community was dead from its beginning in 1954. And there is little in the experience of the past 32 years to encourage any realistic hope of its revival. The most likely effect of the American pullback would be, not to initiate a period of growing self-reliance and continental harmony, but rather to end nearly a quarter-century of peace and stability unparalleled in modern European history.

The simple fact is that the only hope of preserving Western Europe's independence as an island of democracy under the shadow of Soviet power rests on an unambiguous American commitment to its security as long as the Soviet Union remains a hostile power. There is no other way of effectively counterbalancing Soviet power and averting a dangerous strategic imbalance that could start a slide into miscalculations and war.

Beyond the misconceptions, Kissinger and Brzezinski are fostering a myth in claiming that US freedom of action is potentially paralyzed by the behavior of European allies. NATO was never intended to be a global alliance. From the outset nearly 40 years ago, the United States has always rejected attempts by other allies to invoke the NATO treaty to demand US support for adventures outside Europe -- the British and French for their Suez invasion and the French in Algeria, to mention two such episodes. Washington now cannot expect to rewrite the rules and invoke the treaty to demand automatic allied support for US actions worldwide.

Besides, it would be difficult to demonstrate convincingly that the stationing of US troops in Europe has at any time actually deprived Washington of the forces required for operations outside the NATO area. In the Vietnam war, which commanded little support from America's allies and was openly opposed by some, the US was not deterred from shifting 100,000 troops and masses of equipment and supplies from Europe.

Financial stringencies may in time force a retrenchment in defense spending that might well include a reduction in US deployments in Europe. But to pretend that a major retreat from the Continent would enhance the US strategic posture and the stability of Europe -- as Kissinger and Brzezinski argue -- is to stand strategic reality on its head.

Joseph Fromm, a veteran foreign correspondent and former assistant editor of U.S. News & World Report, is United States chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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