President Bush on Monday announced his long anticipated plan to remove as many as 70,000 U.S. troops from Europe and Asia in a sweeping reorganization that he said would better prepare the military to handle crises.
But Democrats attacked the plan as an example of unilateralism that would damage global alliances and ultimately weaken U.S. security. They said bringing the troops home would further alienate many of the country’s staunchest allies who had parted company with the administration over the war in Iraq.
The intense partisan exchange offered a glimpse of the underlying differences between Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry and their conflicting visions of how best to assure the nation’s security.
White House officials billed Monday’s announcement as the biggest troop realignment since the end of the Cold War, although Bush offered few details during remarks tucked into a campaign speech delivered here to the annual meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He said the return stateside of 60,000 to 70,000 troops and more than 100,000 relatives and civilian personnel would take 10 years. The president said the move would improve life for military families and save money -- while also making the military more agile.
Around the world, the U.S. military would rely more heavily on Special Forces and small contingents of “forward forces” to provide rapid response, while shifting heavier equipment and regular divisions back home.
The plan would involve closing hundreds of military facilities around the world, administration officials said -- substantially trimming the U.S. presence in historically strategic places such as Germany and the Korean peninsula. Half of U.S. military installations in Europe, particularly smaller bases, would be closed.
The changes would not directly affect the roughly 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Elements of the troop repositioning plans have been discussed since last year, but the administration remained vague about details, citing ongoing negotiations with a number of current and potential base host nations. But it was clear that Germany would give up the most.
Two armored divisions would return to the United States, and one of the Army’s new lightly armored Stryker brigades would be stationed in Germany, said officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on condition of anonymity.
The 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers of the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division would not leave Germany before 2006, officials said. They would be replaced by a Stryker brigade of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
That cut alone could reduce by more than 10% the roughly 227,000 troops permanently stationed overseas. There are 106,000 U.S. troops stationed in Europe.
Defense officials denied that the plan was designed to strike an economic blow at Western European nations, such as Germany, that opposed the Iraq war.
But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested that uneasiness of host nations such as Germany toward the war in Iraq played a role.
“There’ll be a shift from Germany and we’ve talked to the Germans about that and some numbers,” Rumsfeld told reporters Sunday on the way to Washington from Russia. “We want our forces where they’re wanted. We want our forces where we have the right kinds of legal arrangements ... and the like.”
Pentagon strategists, looking eastward for help, were expected to move some troops from what Rumsfeld has dubbed “Old Europe” to what he calls “New Europe” bases in former Soviet bloc nations Poland and Romania.
The Pentagon also plans to rely more on temporary bases in such previously non-allied countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, key partners in the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
“The new plan will help us fight and win these wars of the 21st century,” Bush said. “It will strengthen our alliances around the world, while we build new partnerships to better preserve the peace. It will reduce the stress on our troops and our military families.”
The president pledged that the U.S. would maintain “a significant presence overseas,” and he reiterated that the country would not abandon Iraq or Afghanistan.
But Kerry supporters speaking on the candidate’s behalf immediately attacked the move.
“This is another example of the administration’s unilateralism. It’s going to weaken our national security,” Richard C. Holbrooke, a Kerry foreign policy advisor and former U.N. ambassador under President Clinton, said on CNN. “It is not going to save us money. It will cost billions of dollars to bring these troops home.”
Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, also speaking for Kerry, said, “As we face a global war on terror with Al Qaeda active in more than 60 countries, now is not the time to pull back our forces.
“Withdrawing forces from Europe will further undermine already strained relations with longtime NATO allies,” said Clark, NATO’s supreme commander in the 1999 Kosovo war.
Military experts outside the two campaigns said the move could have drawbacks as well as benefits.
“I do think it was time to re-look at our posture around the world,” said former Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, ex-chief of the U.S. Central Command.
“There are going to be negatives -- probably mostly political and in relationships -- and there are going be positives -- probably in cost savings down the road,” Zinni said. “The political side will come in how the North Koreans react to this and how the Germans react to this.”
The troops issue reflects wider differences between Bush and Kerry on their approaches to national security.
For Bush, the paramount issue appears to be streamlining and improving the country’s ability to project military power abroad, wherever necessary and on short notice. Positioning more troops inside the United States, closer to logistical, transportation and other support systems, could improve that capability.
For Kerry, the overriding issue is preserving the network of alliances and special relationships that the United States has built up -- both political and military -- over the last half century as a result of having bases around the world. Those relationships may be harder to maintain if the everyday contact of foreign deployments is reduced.
Those differing visions are echoed in recurrent themes in the rival presidential campaigns that can be reduced to two words -- “unilateralist” and “visionary.” Kerry surrogates portrayed it as a further unilateral step toward disengagement from traditional allies that Democrats maintain Bush has already alienated.
“This is a major step away from strong alliances,” Holbrooke said. “This is a policy that will have [former French President] Charles de Gaulle smiling in his grave. It is what De Gaulle and [current French President Jacques] Chirac and others predicted we would do: walk away from our European commitments.”
Clark, the former North American Treaty Organization supreme allied commander, said reducing troops in Europe and Asia also would signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that the United States had weakened its resolve against that country’s nuclear weapons program.
The political value in all these proposals, one Bush strategist said, was that they portrayed him as “an agent of change” willing to rethink fundamental assumptions. By contrast, they argue, Kerry’s hostility to the idea paints him as wedded to obsolete assumptions.
“This is about modernization of defenses, and pursuing transformational change, while Democrats are defenders of a pre-9/11 status quo,” the GOP strategist said.
Republicans are also hoping the proposal produces a more precisely targeted political benefit: They believe it will be popular with military families, many of whom have been stressed by the extended deployments in Iraq.
Addressing enthusiastic VFW members amid cries of “four more years,” the president’s remarks were apparently directed toward soldiers and their families at a time when critics charge that extended deployments in the Middle East are putting undue strain on the military.
“Our military spouses will have fewer job changes, greater stability, more time for their kids and to spend with their families at home,” Bush said. “The taxpayers will save money, as we configure our military to meet the threats of the 21st century. There will be savings as we consolidate and close bases and facilities overseas no longer needed to face the threats of our time and defend the peace.”
Democrats disputed the savings claim, citing a May study by the Congressional Budget Office that estimated annual savings at more than $1 billion, but said the initial relocation costs could reach $7 billion.
They also noted that the study said the change would produce at best only small improvements in the United States’ ability to respond to far-flung conflicts.
Kerry, who was taking a brief vacation at his family’s home in Ketchum, Idaho, left the issue to his advisors for the moment, but he was scheduled to address the VFW convention himself Wednesday.
Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein, Edwin Chen and Jia Lynn Yang in Washington and Matea Gold in Ketchum contributed to this report.