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  National
Meaning of U.S. Troops Move from Peninsula
Special Contribution
By Kurt Campbell
US troops in military drill
The Bush administration's announcement that approximately 3,600 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division that have been stationed for decades on the Korean border would be pulling up stakes from their tripwire positions in South Korea and moving to bolster U.S. forces in Iraq was at a strategic level not a surprise.

From the very outset of the Bush administration, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon team have long searched for the appropriate rationale that would allow for a downsizing of U.S. military armor and men from the peninsula. There were early attempts to downsize the Army in Korea as part of a new agenda to transform the US military for more high tech missions and the heavy forces on the peninsula were thought to be expendable.

There were the subsequent tensions between Washington and Seoul over the path and pace of engagement with North Korea, and many believed that the Pentagon sought a downsizing of U.S. forces to signal displeasure over the strategic drift between the two erstwhile allies. Yet finally, the recent strain on US forces based in Iraq and the Middle East provided the most urgent rationale to redeploy combat ready forces to the desperate fight underway for the future of Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld
Nevertheless, when word came of the move there was surprise in some quarters that the United States would be sending such a signal to the rest of Asia during such a delicate time. It is hardly a secret that the United States is now fully preoccupied by the events transpiring daily on the urban battlefields of Iraq and there is little attention, time, or interest to spare for other regions or potential problems.

However, the power dynamics of Asia continue with China's role increasing by the minute, Japan moving out from its long-held and self-imposed pacifism, South East Asia anxious about rising Islamic fundamentalism, and Korea still dangerously divided with North Korea bent on further nuclear acquisition.

By any aggregate measurement, the United States is still the great power of Asia with enormous military capabilities and commercial and financial might. Yet the Middle East is taking up more and more of our intellectual and strategic bandwidth with many Asians in councils of power and industry beginning to quietly question our staying power.

In the past, Asians always worried that in the distant future the United States would be less interested in Asia. But usually, the region was content with America's current status quo involvement, give or take.

Today, the situation is reversed. Many believe that over the long term the United States will most surely return to Asian preoccupations, but meanwhile in the short term, it is missing in action when it comes to several enormous changes in the region. The move of the U.S. military from the Korean Peninsula does not in any significant way reduce our operational capabilities given the overwhelming maritime and air expeditionary capabilities that can be brought to bear in Asia on short order.

Dean Acheson
The problem is more the political significance and the message that North Korea and perhaps others in the region take when it comes to American staying power. There is anxiety that a deeply unpredictable leadership in the North might mistake this move as a sign of disinterest or disinclination — similar in some respects to the famous Secretary of State Dean Acheson omission that led to the Korean war.

However, one only hopes that the aggregate deterrent affect of the other regional powers combined with the United States will be enough to deter North Korea from considering any provocative actions on the peninsula in the immediate period ahead.

Ultimately, what's most worrisome is the meaning of this move for U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) relations. The U.S. revamping, reorganization, and redeployment of its forces on the peninsula is long overdue and there is no reason to expect that these imminently sensible military moves should result in a necessary loss of confidence in the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Yet given the strains of recent years on this alliance, I'm afraid that this necessary redeployment of U.S. forces will trigger another round of bilateral soul searching that could undermine confidence in the crucial partnership between the Korean and American peoples.

If anything, the recent announcements of the military move from the green hills of South Korea to the sandy deserts of Iraq underscores two essential truths: One, the United States needs to build a bigger military and a larger army in particular to deal with growing global challenges in the age of terror; And second, the United States must seek for ways to buttress and fortify an alliance with South Korea that is showing the strain put on it by both regional and now global developments.



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Kurt M. Campbell has been serving as senior vice president, director of the International Security Program, and holder of the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in National Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) since he joined the center in 2000. Previously he held several high-profile positions in U.S. government. He contributes to various media including the New York Times.

 

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