Joe Boyles, Guest Columnist
In my 27 year military career (1970-97) covering 12 assignments, three of those were spent overseas. My first assignment out of flight training was to Korea in 1972. I spent about half the next thirteen months in Southeast Asia at DaNang AB in Vietnam and Korat AB in Thailand. Next, we went to England for three years. In the early 1980s, we spent nearly three years in Germany. In those assignments and a later as an inspector general, I traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Far East.
I must admit that overseas assignments were an attraction to me and my family during my military career. We enjoyed living in foreign cultures, gained a much better world-view and appreciation for our home, the United States of America.
That said, it is important to look at our military commitments overseas in today’s context and ask, are we overextended; are we in places that no longer make any sense; and do these commitments have the opportunity to create problems for our nation?
Last week, President Obama announced that we would be withdrawing about one-third of our military commitment to Afghanistan over the next 15 months. Today we have about 100K military servicemen, mostly Army and Marines, in Afghanistan. Thirty months ago when Obama took office, we had about 35K in Afghanistan but the outgoing Bush Administration had built a plan to double that strength. Obama implemented that plan, then surged another 30K to the current strength.
President Obama’s announced drawdown is clearly politically motivated – he wants to demonstrate to his political base that he is serious about winding down our military commitment in Afghanistan. His announced withdrawal is two months prior to the next presidential election where he wants to be reelected.
This was a more aggressive timetable than was recommended by his military commanders. We’ll be withdrawing most of these troops during the 2012 fighting season which extends into November. It isn’t a good idea to withdraw forces when your enemy is strongest.
In the larger context, think about our military commitments overseas today. In addition to 100K in Afghanistan, we have nearly 80K still in Europe, primarily in England, Germany, Italy, and Turkey; 60K in Iraq; 30K in Korea; 30K in Japan; 10K in Panama; and thousands more sprinkled at various locations around the globe. It is a heavy and expensive commitment. Certainly America is the premier global power in the early 21st Century, but do we need this many stationed at overseas locations?
Do we need overseas bases at all? Yes, just like the Navy needed overseas coaling ports a century ago, we need overseas bases to project our naval and air power. We cannot base everything from CONUS (continental US) bases – the earth is simply too large. I’m not as convinced that we need much overseas land power, i.e. soldiers and marines. I fear that we are maintaining some of these bases and manpower in foreign lands simply because we’ve always done it, at least since the end of World War II. It is kind of like inertia; public policy via the status quo.
How many soldiers do we need in Germany or Marines in Okinawa? Why are we devoting so many soldiers to protecting the border of South Korea while ignoring our own southern border with Mexico where we have a sincere threat to national security? After six decades, can’t the South Koreans protect their own national sovereignty?
It is expensive to base overseas and that money largely goes to prop up the economy of the host country. CONUS bases recycle taxpayer dollars to the local economy and the impact is significant – just ask our neighbors in Valdosta and Lowndes County.
The Pentagon bureaucracy is about as nimble as an aircraft carrier traveling at full speed. This is a matter where political leaders who are sincerely interested in national security must ask the right questions and force the “military-industrial complex” to justify such a heavy overseas commitment.