European papers waxed nostalgic for the bad old days of the Cold War this week, following President George Bush's announcement Monday that the United States was pulling up to 70,000 troops out of Europe and Asia over the next decade. The long-expected troop reshuffle, billed as the biggest global military realignment since the fall of the Soviet Union, will remove tens of thousands of American soldiers—along with the money they spend there—from Germany, Britain, and Italy.
Editorialists harked back to the days when American GIs seemed like a permanent feature of the Bavarian woodlands, stationed there to repel a feared charge of Warsaw Pact troops and tanks through the Fulda Gap into West Germany. London's Financial Times drew a weighty historical analogy to the Roman Empire. "Rarely has a foreign power remained in such numbers over such a long period and then withdrawn with local inhabitants expressing sorrow rather than anger. Emperor Honorius's decision to withdraw his Roman legions from Britain in 410 AD, despite the pleadings of local Britons besieged by invading Picts and Saxons, is a distinctly dim historical memory." (Rome, as it happens, was sacked by barbarians that same year.) The paper also summed up the ambivalence felt by much of the world over the strength and breadth of America's military reach: "The world is torn between a suspicion of the solitary superpower, and a more general appreciation for Pax Americana."
Germany's Mitteldeutsche Zeitung became downright sentimental, pointing out that the American way of life has influenced generations, molding everything from musical tastes and fashion to social outlooks like openness and tolerance. From a hard economic point of view, the moves will cost Germany thousands of jobs. "For a country with more than four million unemployed, that's not good news," wrote Brussels' De Morgen. (German translations courtesy of Deutsche Welle radio, which also ran a colorful piece on the local economy in the small town of Baumholder, home to 5,000 Germans and 13,000 Americans.) Germany's conservative opposition is calling for aid to affected communities. "I myself come from a region which will be largely affected by the withdrawal of US troops with the bases in Bamberg and Würzburg soon to be deserted," an opposition spokesman told German radio.
An article in the British regional daily Cambridge News, close to American air force bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, lamented the fact that both these bases recently invested tens of millions of pounds on new homes for service personnel, rebuilding a runway, a new control tower, and a new operations center.
From the tenor of some editorials, one might get the impression that the United States was abandoning Europe entirely. This is hardly the case. The country most affected, Germany, will see less than half of its American troops leave. (The plan is to re-station these troops mainly to domestic bases, although where exactly remains a matter of much speculation near military installations in the United States.)
Papers poured cold water on the popular theory that Bush's pull-out plan is revenge for German opposition to the Iraq war. "Rumours are still flying round the country that the Americans are pulling their troops out of Germany to punish the government for its rebellious policy on Iraq. But that is just not true, even if the withdrawal will hit some German regions hard," wrote a commentator in Germany's center-right Die Welt. "Washington has strategic motives. In the future, US troops will be stationed closer to trouble spots and be more mobile." This last statement elides the fact that most U.S. bases are in fact farther from the world's trouble than those in Europe. (German translation courtesy of the Guardian.)
Still, it can hardly hurt that allies further east—where the United States is likely to expand some military outposts—are seen as more cooperative with Washington's foreign policy. "New allies can be more compliant than old ones too. They already include Poland, Romania and Uzbekistan—regardless in the last case of its appalling human rights record," writes Britain's left-leaning Guardian.
The move is expected to weaken NATO while giving Europeans an opportunity to forge a security policy independent of the United States, which has long spent far more on its military, as a percentage of GDP, than its European allies. "Europe must look for a new orientation in as far as NATO will be weakened in the long run. Even if those who support national sovereignty don't like it, a new military integration will be needed, and that is currently unthinkable without political integration," writes Strasbourg's Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace. (French translation courtesy of Deutsche Welle.)
While endorsing the logic of the European withdrawal, the Financial Times likened Bush's plan to rearranging chairs on an all-too-sparsely furnished deck. "The real issue facing American troops today is that there are too few of them to perform the jobs demanded," the paper said, and gave a thumbs-up to John Kerry's plan to add 40,000 new troops.
In Paris, Le Figaro penned a passage of stark partisan honesty, endorsing Kerry's objections to the plan while arguing that in fact, the troop realignment made his proposed 40,000 additional troops unnecessary. "[A]ny argument that Kerry makes is right, if it means he wins the White House," the paper wrote.