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Saturday, Aug. 21, 2004


Be careful what you wish for

LOS ANGELES -- Be careful what you wish for, goes the saying: In the end, you might just get your wish.

That aphorism surely applies to the chorus of critics unhappy about the presence of U.S. armed forces in Okinawa and South Korea. Their wish has been for the American military footprint to look less like a big foot and more like a toenail.

Now these critics may get something of their wish.

The Bush administration, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and clouded by an uncertain fall election, nonetheless is pushing a large idea called "military transformation."

To use an American football metaphor, it proposes to change the "offense" of our military from an old-fashioned running-ground game to what football fanatics might call a "West Coast offense."

The overall U.S. military posture would trade a toe-to-toe, stand-there-and-fight mentality for a Batman and Robin mobility whereby forces, with cutting-edge technology, would be able to strike swiftly from anywhere at a moment's notice.

Whatever the strategic thinking behind this approach, for people in South Korea and Japan, in particular, the most noticeable effect would be fewer U.S. military personnel in their back yard.

In South Korea, the Pentagon proposes to decamp the Yongsan base in central Seoul (a source of continuing tension between U.S. military personnel and residents), relocate many existing U.S. troops southward and withdraw perhaps as many as 12,500 entirely.

In Japan, several withdrawal/redeployment options are on the table (and off), but clearly something will happen. It's a near certainty that, in the end, fewer U.S. forces will be in Okinawa and more will be in Guam, a U.S. territory.

Dramatic change can be exhilarating or enervating, sometimes both; but now that the Japanese and South Koreans have seen the future, some are beginning to wish that things would stay the way they were. For better or for worse, that's not going to happen. Whether there's a Bush or Kerry administration come January, "military transformation" will take place for a number of reasons.

First, it makes sense; the Cold War is over, as seems the days of large ignorant armies clashing dumbly in the night.

Second, the best and brightest officers in the U.S. military believe that continued military reform is vital if America is to keep its edge. It's noteworthy, though, that their definition of military transformation includes the very activities advocated by such Democratic doves as Harvard Dean Joseph Nye, in his compelling "soft" over "hard" power pitch.

I recently eavesdropped on a U.S. military conference in which sophisticated public-relations and psychological-operations ideas were bandied about enthusiastically like so many new weapons systems. Indeed, that is just what they are: In this IT age, rapidly communicated ideas can be weapons of mass instruction that make friends, influence people, and unnerve and disorient enemies.

Another Asian complaint about "military transformation" is that it could lead America toward a new isolationism. That's possible -- but most improbable. For starters, America's aggregate economic, political and strategic interests are a seamless network of involvements and obligations that could not vaporize overnight without serious damage to U.S. national interests.

Moreover, the challenge from terrorists and other America-haters is continuing and daunting: It is long term, not short term, and success will not be had if the United States goes it alone. Washington will need every ally, every bit of help, every byte of data and intelligence information to endure. If it were to shrink behind its borders and wait for enemy hordes to cross the modern-day Maginot line, defeat would surely follow.

The Bush administration's "military transformation" -- or however a new administration might market it -- will arrive before too long because the outside pressures of globalization will force change anyhow. Military transformation's exact shape will depend as much on external challenges and foreign threats and attacks as on abstract blueprints on Pentagon drawing boards. That's why the best and brightest in the U.S. military know that they had better get with the program, and fast. History tends not to wait for the latecomers.

Our friends in Asia need to accept the inevitable and figure out ways to climb aboard. India and Japan have already seen that; other governments have been a bit slower on the uptake. In the end, military transformation is like globalization itself: There's not too much you can do about it, even if you don't much like it.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International policy, is founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network.

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