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Hither and Yon

Obama may be tempted to leave the budgeting of a credible U.S. Asian presence to his successor

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The temptation to slash defense spending is overwhelming. Why worry about huge standing forces overseas when they’re not deployed much except on military exercises and war games that are repetitious and boring?
Easy to say, but the U.S. had only 500 advisers in South Korea when the North invaded 65 years ago, nearly overrunning the South before the Americans, South Koreans and forces from a dozen other countries pushed them back.
Still, the war went on another two years at the cost of as many as four million lives, the majority of them civilians, before settling into an uneasy peace broken by periodic incidents and threats of much worse.
All of which is by way of wondering if the determination of the U.S. Congress to slash the size of the U.S. armed forces is really a good idea. The U.S., criticized for having sent troops to Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein, withdrew them as President Obama had promised. The payoff for that strategy was the loss of hard-won territory and the rise of a far worse enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
If the U.S. cuts its armed forces worldwide by 10 percent, how can the U.S. maintain its depleted structure in South Korea, about 28,500 troops, backed up by 45,000 in Japan? And how can the U.S. respond effectively to crises simmering all around the periphery of China, from North Korea to the South China Sea to the borders with India? How quickly could American troops respond from bases in the U.S.?
In recent years we’ve faced so many crises in Asia that we’re now pretty confident nothing will happen. We haven’t had a real war there since Vietnam when the whole U.S.-supported effort fell to a crushing defeat. That humiliation didn’t exactly elevate confidence in the ability of the U.S. to respond effectively.
In Vietnam, the U.S. never sent ground forces into the North, that is, beyond the 17th parallel that was supposed to divide North and South Vietnam just as the 38th parallel, as dictated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, divided North from South Korea after the Japanese surrender 70 years ago. Nor did the U.S. flatten North Vietnamese towns and cities as in the Korean War. Finally, the Americans lacked the nerve to go after the enemy in neighboring Cambodia and Laos except on brief forays, as when U.S. troops crossed into Cambodia for 60 days in President Nixon’s quest to wipe out Communist base areas in 1970.
The real test comes when the politicians in Washington decide how aggressively to pursue a range of enemies. That’s not to say the U.S. made a big mistake in not pursuing a ”wider war,” which Nixon said the U.S. did not want, but the Americans face more humiliation if they lack a clear policy and then fail to carry it out. That’s the inherent risk in cutting back on armed forces while the danger level is increasing.
The ostensible reason the U.S. is scaling back is the need to reduce the yawning budget deficit. The Pentagon makes an obvious target. Conservatives criticize Obama for compromising on the Pentagon’s needs. U.S. military spending, however, is far ahead of that of any other country. Yet somehow the fanciest equipment cannot guarantee tranquility over widely dispersed areas.
The challenge may become still more difficult if and when the nuclear deal with Iran takes effect. You can’t be sure what the Iranians will do. The fears of Israel, vulnerable and isolated in the Islamic Middle East, may be overwrought, but Iran is the leading Middle Eastern power and may want to throw its weight around, particularly in combating ISIL.
U.S. forces face other problems in northeast Asia. The governor of Okinawa has managed to get the Japanese government to order a one-month break in construction of a U.S. marine air station at Henoko on Okinawa’s northeast coast. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be a rightist, but he had to back down on Henoko faced with protests.
The people of Okinawa, where the U.S. has one of its largest overseas air bases at Kadena, might feel a little differently if threatened by an outside force.
Philippine leaders would like the guarantee of U.S. defense against China 23 years after the Americans were forced by “nationalist” politicians to pull out of their huge air and naval bases.
If Obama is lucky, he’ll leave the White House without having to take the blame for America’s weakening defense shield in Asia and elsewhere. He’d love to let his successor deal with the growing challenge to U.S. power worldwide.
Donald Kirk has been writing about war and peace in Asia for decades. His most recent book is “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent.” He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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