Ted Galen Carpenter
Once American military personnel die from an enemy offensive, it would be nearly impossible for a president to walk away from treaty obligations.
As tensions flare on the Korean Peninsula, concerns mount about North Korea’s nuclear- weapons capability. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently stated that, contrary to rumors and alarmist media reports, Pyongyang does not yet pose a serious threat to the American homeland. The same cannot be said, however, for the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan. Those tripwire forces have become little more than nuclear hostages, well within range of North Korea’s current missile fleet. Keeping the troops in such a vulnerable location is foolhardy.
Ironically, their presence may even reduce the credibility of the U.S. security commitment to the East Asian allies—contrary to the conventional wisdom about the effect of such deployments. The rationale for stationing tripwire forces in both East Asia and Europe during the Cold War was that the move guaranteed U.S. involvement in any conflict that broke out. Christopher Layne, the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security at Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service, points out in his crucial history of the Cold War, Peace of Illusions, that U.S. allies repeatedly sought those deployments precisely for that purpose. Successive presidential administrations obliged, believing that the step was essential to reassure Washington’s security partners that America would never, indeed could never, renege on its promises. Once American military personnel died from an enemy offensive, it would be nearly impossible for a president to walk away from treaty obligations.