NEW YORK — The ebbing of the American military tide that swept across the globe following the Sept. 11 attacks almost a decade ago flows most clearly right now in Iraq, where U.S. logistical units work flat out these days to keep up with the flow of departing troops and equipment.
In Afghanistan, too, the quartermasters who run the U.S. military’s great logistical pump will soon flip the switch to backwash, all told removing the vast majority of a force that in 2008 peaked at 198,000 between the two battle zones.
The winding down of these wars — Iraq by Christmas, Afghanistan tentatively by the end of 2013 — will end a traumatic period that saw American military forces do many of the things policymakers had foresworn after Vietnam.
Yet for all the focus on those drawdowns, the larger strategic change underway is taking place in Europe, where American troops have been stationed in large numbers since World War II. Afghanistan and Iraq, after all, were never meant to be long-term commitments, and while that thinking proved disastrously optimistic, the decade of war in Afghanistan — and two in Iraq, if one draws the timeline back to the 1991 Gulf War — pales next to an American presence on the European continent dating to D-Day, June 4, 1944.
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With little fanfare outside a muted flag folding ceremony in Wiesbaden, Germany, the final American division in Europe — the U.S. 1st Armored Division, which fought its way from North Africa to the Italian Alps during the war — packed up and left for its base at Fort Bliss, Texas, in May.
Still based in Europe at the moment are four Army “Brigade Combat Teams,” three in Germany and a fourth in Vicenza, Italy. The lighter, more deployable BCTs emerged from a major reform of the army’s force structure in the past decade and number about 3,500-strong, compared to the 10,000-12,000 soldier divisions they replaced. One of those four — likely one of the Germany-based BCTs, will be withdrawn in 2012.
The result will be an enormous change from the days when encountering American soldiers on leave or liberty in Europe was routine. Cold War U.S. troop strength in Europe, which peaked in 1962 at nearly 277,000 soldiers, remained well over 200,000 until the early 1990s. Under current plans, resisted by a military leadership increasingly resigned to the deep cuts coming in the years ahead, will cut European based troops from 42,000 today to 37,000 by 2015.
There was a time when such a proposal would ensure a united phalanx of Republicans, along with some hawkish Democrats, lining up to label any Democratic president who dared suggest such cuts as soft on defense. But the old lines have shifted, and cutting defense spending is one of the very few things — along with the color of the sky and the likelihood of the sun rising — that unites liberals and Tea Party Republicans.
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"The widely held sentiment among Tea Party Patriot members is that every item in the budget, including military spending and foreign aid, must be on the table," Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said in a statement during recent budget talks. "It is time to get serious about preserving the country for our posterity. The mentality that certain programs are 'off the table' must be taken off the table."
The General Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, reinforced this in a 2010 report that predicts “it will potentially cost between $1 billion and $2 billion more from fiscal years 2012-2021 to keep the two brigades in Europe than it would cost to return them to the United States.”
This will thrill U.S. policymakers who have complained for decades about the disproportionate burden shouldered by the United States in Europe. The U.S. share of NATO’s defense spending now comprises 75 percent — up from 50 percent when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 — all ostensibly defending wealthy European members of NATO (by some measures wealthier than the U.S. itself) against a threat that is greatly diminished, if not quite nonexistent, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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“The blunt reality,” recently retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his European counterparts in the spring, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Just what Europe is defending itself against, of course, other than its own fiscal train wreck, is an open question. Polls indicate Europeans are a great deal less exercised about terrorism than Americans, even if some fear that the growing presence of Muslim minorities threaten their national character.
Similarly, the U.S. has other fish to fry — most of them in the Pacific. Whether the rise of China is viewed as benign, neutral or a threat by Americans, global economic and military patterns mark the Pacific Rim and South Asia as the priority as U.S. defense spending begins to shrink. As charming as a posting to the U.S. Sixth Fleet headquarters south of Naples or the U.S. Army’s Alpine retreat at Garmisch-Partenkirchen might be, in an age of double-digit unemployment and weariness with the world, the temptation is to say arrivederci and Auf Wiedersehen to expensive old habits.