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COLUMN

Deploying Troops To Eastern Europe

Daniel Barclay

The American military is currently repositioning its forces around the globe. Shifting bases within South Korea, removing them from Saudi Arabia, and reducing their number at home make manifest sense to accommodate changing global conditions. But one proposed move attracts more controversy: transferring troops based in Germany to Eastern Europe. While this plan is logical from a macroscopic perspective, pragmatic considerations call its feasibility into question.

Advocates emphasize the long-term strategic advantages. In a post-Cold War, post-September 11 environment, security threats are most likely to emerge from the Middle East and its environs. Relegated to staging areas, European bases should lend themselves to rapid response. Small, light bases in proximate Eastern Europe seem to fit this criterion -- and would cost less to maintain, given the lower cost of living and reduced need for support of dependents. Furthermore, they would help stabilize local countries, akin to the post-World War II role they played in Western Europe.

Also worthy of note are the potential political benefits. Germany opposed recent U.S. policy in Iraq, and yanking its bases could conceivably discourage such behavior in the future. Switching to the more receptive governments of Eastern Europe would reward them for their support, assuage any civil-military tensions, and reduce the risk of noncooperation in times of conflict. It might also ease political pressure on Turkey, which would no longer be the sole source of ground basing capability in the region.

The strategic arguments against the move are quite weak -- Germany is far removed from global hot spots, and American troops will have to leave sooner or later. But should they leave now? Various obstacles indicate otherwise, foremost the generally poor infrastructure of Eastern Europe. Mediocre transportation and communication links could hinder theater coordination, supply chains, and the all-important rapid response capability. Also, many of the bases slated for use are derelict Soviet facilities in need of significant renovation -- this costs money, which would no longer be available in subsidies from the Germans and is in short supply among the less affluent Eastern European nations.

These factors may combine to depress morale, as most soldiers would not appreciate leaving the cushy bases of Germany for a more rugged life away from their families. While Eastern Europe’s lower cost of living expenses may seem attractive, they bespeak an important problem -- lower living conditions, period.

So what’s the verdict? In the short term, redeployment seems dubious. As a practical matter, Eastern European bases are unlikely to fulfill their primary rationale of significantly faster response anytime soon. Even if they do, that will not be of much help for extended operations such as Iraq.

But long-term interests must ultimately be paramount. Germany is no longer a geostrategic location, and excepting Ramstein its bases have outlived their expediency. Eastern Europe offers an alternative. While infrastructure is in bad shape now, it will only improve as the region develops. Even if redeployment is currently unwarranted, that will change in the near future -- with the cost function trending downwards and the benefits more or less constant, at some point the two will intersect. American troops will move to Eastern Europe eventually.

Military planners might as well press ahead at the first opening, which the reconstruction of Iraq provides. If they can prepare the Eastern European bases for occupancy before troops return from the Middle East, that will create a golden opportunity to carry out the transfer without having to overcome the inertia of a stationary force. And needless to say, soldiers will react more favorably to their new quarters if the recent basis for comparison is not Germany, but Iraq.

Western Europe has hosted American troops for the past half-century. Now it’s the East’s turn.