Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Earliest Stages of Withdrawal

It’s a commonplace by now that the most ignorant and thoughtless segment of the electorate decides American elections, thus guaranteeing the juvenile tone of our political campaigns. One simply has to talk baby talk to babies. It also seems to be an invariable rule that the most pressing issues of the day may not be the subject of public debate in an election year. How else explain the remarkable silence that met Bush’s proposal to remove the bulk of our troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea? In itself, the Iraq imbroglio may well prove to be of marginal importance; but overturning the fundamental basis of world politics is definitely going to make the cut in the nth edition of R.R.Palmer. Indeed, what may turn out to be the most important consequence of the invasion of Iraq could well be the impetus it gave for a thoughtless and spasmodic redefinition of the foundations of American foreign policy.

In principle, I’m not unhappy with the general idea of reducing our garrisons in Europe and Asia; but I recognize, as apparently the administration does not, that much more is at stake than a cheap fix for our imperial overstretch. There are so many consequences. For example, in the short term, pulling the troops out of Germany may be a way to punish a recalcitrant ally. That seems to have been the principle rationale when the idea was first floated six months ago. Over even the middle term, however, the absence of a substantial American presence is likely to lead to a more independent and assertive Europe, exactly what sets this administration crazy. The Germans may have liked the economic benefits of the permanent occupation, but golden fetters are still fetters. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Earth, a stand down in Korea and Japan may have analogous effects. I don’t happen to be very worried about the North Koreans in this regard—they would be obliterated if they attacked the South whether or not we have a couple of extra divisions there—but the de facto lessening of American military guarantees may well lead to Japanese rearmament, not because of North Korea but because of China. I guess the administration figures it has plenty of time to adjust to this development since it would take Sony a good three months to come up with nuclear weapons. But the military consequences of withdrawal may not be the most important issue.

More by accident than design, the continued presence of American forces in Europe and Northwest Asia has worked out very well. The Americans weren’t threatening, not only because of our general benignity but because it was perceived that we were never strong enough to actually occupy or dominate Western Europe or Japan or to actively threaten the Soviets or China. That made us tolerable to our enemies who knew we wouldn’t get aggressive and welcome to our allies who benefited hugely from a geopolitical system frozen in place for forty years. Which is a large part of the reason why the industrial world has been willing to subsidize our economy. They were getting value for the money. Things are fixing to look different. We ought to be thinking about that. We ought to be thinking about a lot of things. We aren’t.

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