More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are permanently assigned in Europe, Africa and Asia as part of the United States European Command. Most of them, about 70,000, are stationed in Germany. A significant number of US troops were withdrawn from Europe after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, which signaled the end of the Cold War. But not much else has changed.
Earlier this month, however, General James Jones, top commander of NATO, laid out a vision of a reduced American presence in Germany in favor of smaller, less costly bases in Eastern Europe. The announcement came against the backdrop of a political rift between Germany and the United States over Iraq. Many conclude that the United States is planning to move its bases to punish Germany and reward the friendlier Eastern European countries. U.S. officials deny that, and many are against removing the bases from Western Europe.
"I don't think that we should have an either/or situation, i.e. to be either in Germany or some place else," says General William Nash, a former commander in Bosnia who served at U.S. Army bases in Germany. "We need to look at a transformation of basing that meets an array of strategic needs, and that we should make haste slowly, as we look at the requirements. There are many factors to consider on where you base soldiers or air forces or naval forces. And it has to do with not only where you are, but your ability to go to where you are needed to operate." General Nash says U.S. military facilities in Germany are very important and difficult to replace.
Radek Sikorski, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says NATO's expansion to the East dictates some restructuring of the U.S. military presence in Europe and thinks that continued tensions with Germany may hasten it. "I don't foresee it at the moment, but I think equally, U.S. forces want to be stationed where they are welcomed," he says. "At the moment, there is increasing pacifism, some anti-Americanism, in Germany. So it makes sense to, I think, spread your bets."
Analysts cite many reasons why Eastern European countries such as Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria would be a good choice for re-deployment of some U.S. troops.
"I think there are those in the administration who view some of the new East European countries as potentially more reliable allies," says Janus Bugajski, Director of the East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Secondly, vis-a-vis the most critical areas of operation in the future - in other words, the Middle East and the Caucasus - they are certainly closer to those territories. Thirdly, it may well be cheaper to have troops in parts of Eastern Europe, particularly in South-East Europe, vis-à-vis the Middle East and the Caucasus."
Eastern European countries, including those that only recently shed the Soviet military presence, welcome the idea.
"Psychologically, that the Americans are there would be an enormous boost," says Mr. Bugajski. "In other words, the historical threat from any direction, I think, would be eliminated with any kind of American military presence. "
Mr. Bugajski says Eastern European countries want to belong to the European Union for economic reasons, but turn to the United States for military protection.
During a recent visit to Washington, Czech foreign minister Cyril Svoboda expressed strong Czech support for NATO. "As soon as we fully regained our freedom, we started looking toward NATO as the best guarantee for the continuing stability of our continent," he says. "We have never thought of NATO as a security umbrella for us to crouch under, but as a security system with obligations and responsibilities."
When rumors swept Poland earlier this year, that the U.S. military might be moving some of its bases from Germany to Poland, mayors of many Polish towns appeared in the news, promoting their particular sites: in one case a former Soviet garrison, in another an old Wehrmacht base. The Polish defense minister stated that he would welcome American bases in Poland. Analysts say some Eastern European countries believe these bases would provide a much needed economic boost, along with military security.
"They would have some benefit. How large it is, depends on the size of the activity," says Jack Seymour, a consultant for the U.S. State Department who served for many years in Europe as a foreign service officer. "There would be construction. There would be facilities built, although some of those would be for the use of the military, not for the civilians. There would be salaries of the people who work on the base that would go into the economy. There would also be employment, for sure, for Polish citizens who could be employed in various ways while building the base and also while maintaining it. So it would be an infusion of money into the economy."
Germans have reacted with mixed feelings to the possibility of the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," says some are against the American military presence in their country. But people whose livelihood depends on the bases are worried. "It will be a big loss. Towns like Kaiserslautern, where you have thousands of Americans, they will suffer a lot economically. And in this economic crisis that Germany is still in, this will mean a lot for those regions."
Mr. Rueb says some Germans have staged rallies supporting the U.S. military presence in their region. The conservative Christian-Democrat Party has also expressed public support for the United States. And some observers note Germany has toned down its anti-American rhetoric in recent months. But Matthias Rueb says trans-Atlantic tensions will continue for a while yet.
"Absolutely, and I think the rift will deepen," he says. "Until the Europeans are not able to have their own idea of a security system in the 21 century, they will have their identity only ex-negativo, just in opposing the United States. And this will not end when the war in Iraq is over. Iraq is only the first element of this quarrel and to my mind, it will worsen and there will be an even deeper rift."
American observers tend to agree. But they also note that trans-Atlatic tensions are nothing new. Many consider it a tiff among family members.
"I state quite at the outset: there will be no divorce," says former U.S. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. "The institutions like NATO, like IMF will go on. But we are likely to have separate bedrooms and, possibly, even a trial separation."
Most analysts say plans for smaller, more flexible and better-positioned forces in Eastern Europe do not exclude huge, well-equipped bases in Germany. A combination of both, they say, would guarantee the defense of NATO members and help provide global security.