The US is contemplating a change in strategy, away from our current defense posture in Europe.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta released a defense strategic guidance, "to articulate priorities for a 21st century defense that sustains US global leadership," as the Pentagon chief put it.
Although few commentators noticed, the guidance alludes to a subtle policy shift away from US security and interests in Europe.
Personally, as a US Air Force colonel and commander of the Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England from 2009-2011, I find these pronouncements vexing.
The changes should not be taken lightly, particularly at a time when trans-Atlantic economies, capabilities and military presence are more inextricably linked than ever.
The guidance includes mixed messages, beginning with sentences expressing Washington's wholehearted support for the continent. It states, "Europe is our principal partner in seeking global and economic security, and will remain so for the foreseeable future." It adds, "The United States has enduring interests in supporting peace and prosperity in Europe as well as bolstering the strength and vitality of NATO, which is critical to the security of Europe and beyond."
Shortly thereafter, however, are statements implying a US withdrawal from the continent: "Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it," and "...this has created a strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe."
What does this mean? Is it a polite way to part company with our close Allies of over 60 years?
Here is one more: "We will also work with NATO allies to develop a 'Smart Defense' approach to pool, share and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges."
What is a Smart Defense? Is it akin to Smart Power but in a ‘defense' sense?
First, many who read these statements firmly believe US bases and forces in Europe are part of an outdated Cold War construct because of a lack of direct threats to European security. They feel the US should bring its forces home and see our current domestic fiscal crisis in isolation rather than tied to Europe.
Having trained and exercised with NATO Allies over the past two years, and having waged a NATO-led conflict over Libya, I have a different perspective.
Critics do not recognize that we have significantly reduced our forces and installations in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Of the 1.4 million current US military personnel, only 90,000 are in Europe, or about 6.4 percent. That's less than one-third the number stationed in Europe in 1991.