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Commentary: The Turn Away From Europe

Author: Josef Joffe
November 2012

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The waning of the historic U.S. troop presence in Europe is a sign of declining American military projection, and potentially bodes ill for the future.

It almost goes unnoticed that the United States is closing a long chapter in its Atlantic history. For 70 years, since the landing in Normandy, America was literally a power-in-Europe, with a vast military presence stretching from Naples to Narvik and from Portugal to Germany. At its peak, the entire force, Navy and Air Force included, numbered 300,000. The Army topped out at 217,000. At the end of this year, the ground troops will have dwindled to 30,000. A massive support structure of American grand strategy is being dismantled. Why is no one weeping or gnashing teeth?

That would have been the response in decades past. From the Korean War onward, when the United States deployed hundreds of thousands to the peninsula, Europeans perpetually nourished a nightmare that the United States, abutting both the Atlantic and Pacific, would abandon them in favor of Asia. To reassure them, the Eisenhower administration dispatched six divisions to the Continent after 1950, promising to keep them there for as long as it took to build up NATO and win the Cold War. This permanent expeditionary force, fortified by thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, held steady for a half century, and even grew when the Soviets ratcheted up the pressure. Yet the angst was ever-simmering, stoked by perennial Senate resolutions demanding a drawdown. And it would roil whenever America's attention shifted to other locales.

It threatened to bubble over during the Vietnam War, when the United States deployed a half-million men to Indochina. It frothed again as the Middle East became a focus, first during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, then after the triumph of Khomeinism in Iran. Almost from the start, the terrifying possibility of "rebalancing," as the idea of redeploying American military assets is now called, was never far from the minds of European geopolitickers.

Still, throughout it all, Europe remained at the center of American foreign policy. The U.S. commitment, shrinking only slowly, survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now, the wolf is at the door. At the beginning of 2012, there were a mere 41,000 troops left; at the end of this year, two more armored brigades will have been pulled out.

Given that the American military presence will virtually be gone from Europe by the time the president-elect puts his hand on the Bible in January 2013, the silence on either side of the Atlantic is astounding. Rebalancing is an about-face of historic proportions. With its vast military presence, America had become a European power after World War II. Now, U.S. grand strategy has finally shifted to the Greater Middle East, to East Asia, and to the Western Pacific. Why is no one wringing his hands? For a number of reasons—some sensible, and some not.

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