The Pentagon has started to execute President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw one-third of the U.S. troops in Germany—reducing their numbers from 36,000 to 24,000. Three things about this move are already clear.
First, far from being “a major strategic and positive shift,” as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper characterized it at a news conference Wednesday, it is purely an outburst of Trump’s angst and revenge, aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for various slights against him.
Second, the strategic shift it bodes would not be at all positive for the NATO alliance—and, contrary to Trump’s intentions, it would cost the United States more money.
Finally, in part for those reasons, defense officials are slow-rolling the pullout, to the point where only a small fraction of the troops will have left Germany by this fall’s election. Then, if Trump loses, the plan will be discarded, as if it had never been put forth, and the rest of the troops will stay where they are.
A Pentagon officer who is involved with the new policy told me that a small number of troops could leave Germany in a matter of weeks, but “in the main,” the withdrawal would take “years.” In part, this is a matter of logistics: It takes a while to load up and move heavy weapons systems, arrange new housing for troops’ families, and so forth. But if officers really wanted to do this, they could do it more quickly than “years” (with an S on the end).
Officers know that, whatever Esper says in public, this is not about strategy. Trump himself exposed the lie at a spontaneous press Q&A outside the White House on Wednesday. Asked about the withdrawal plan, he launched into his familiar America First tirade. “Germany’s delinquent,” he complained. “They haven’t paid their fees. They haven’t paid their NATO fees. They’re way off. And they’ve been off for years, and they have no intention of paying it. The United States has been taken advantage of. … I’m here, and I’m straightening this out. … Why should we keep our troops there? Germany says they’re good for their economy. Well, I’m doing what’s good for our economy.” He then added, turning the exchange into a campaign ad, “With Biden, our country wouldn’t have a chance.”
It is also worth noting that Trump first announced his intention to pull out troops in early June—without consulting either German authorities or his own top aides—just days after Merkel rejected his offer to hold the next G-7 summit at Camp David, in person. (Merkel cited travel restrictions mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Some U.S. officials see a connection between the two events.
One irony is that the withdrawal will put a greater burden on the U.S. defense budget. Money would be saved if Trump disbanded the military units that he was withdrawing, but that’s not what he’s doing. According to Esper, 6,400 of the troops—more than half of the 11,900 that will be moved out of Germany—are simply being “repositioned” to other parts of Europe, mainly Italy, Belgium, and possibly, at some point in the unspecified future, Poland. It will cost a fair bit of change to build or expand new structures and facilities in these countries. (Another telling irony: Italy and Belgium don’t pay as much for defense as Trump wants them to pay either. This is simply revenge against Merkel.)
Another 4,500 troops—the personnel of the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment—will move back to the United States, but even they will be “rotated” back and forth to Europe, mainly to an area near the Black Sea, but possibly elsewhere. Esper said this trend “toward greater use of rotational forces from the United States” will lower costs as well as “enhance our strategic flexibility and operational unpredictability.” But there are three things wrong with this claim.
First, housing troops in the U.S. is more expensive than overseas, especially if the troops and their light-armored Stryker vehicles are going to be moved overseas quite often, either by jumbo cargo jets or ships.
Second, basing these troops and their equipment stateside puts them farther away from areas where they train—and, in the event of war, where they would fight—in tandem with other military units, so the move, in fact, diminishes “our strategic flexibility.”
Third, German bases have been a convenient staging area for U.S. military exercises and operations—including medical evacuations—in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. If Trump wants to end all such operations, that’s a legitimate view to spark an argument. But he hasn’t done this.
As John Pike, director of the research firm GlobalSecurity.org, told me in an email, “Maybe we should not be doing all this power projection. Maybe we should just take our little red wagon and go home. But for 75 years, American troops have found Germany to be a wonderful duty station, and there are many good reasons we are still there. We should not upset the cart due to some whim.”
Contrary to what Esper implies, it is not a good thing to “enhance” our “strategic unpredictability.” The whole point of NATO—the main point of keeping troops in Europe—is to assure our allies, and to convince our adversaries, that our troops will be there to deter and defend against an attack. Alliances are all about putting up a reliable front—that is, they’re about predictability.
And that’s the main problem with Trump’s temper-tantrum policy. When it comes to deterring or staving off aggression, it doesn’t much matter whether the U.S. has 36,000 or 24,000 troops in Germany or some other place in Europe. In case of war, they would have to be reinforced with more troops from elsewhere either way. But the permanent stationing of troops is a token—in this case, a heavily armed token—of a commitment to defend. Withdrawing a large fraction of those troops can’t help but be seen, by friends and foes alike, as a slackening of that commitment. This is especially true when combined with Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward allies, his crudely transactional view of alliances in general, and his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose main strategic goal has been to drive wedges between the U.S and Europe—a goal that, wittingly or not, Trump has helped him achieve beyond his wildest dreams.
In short, if Trump loses the election, this whole exercise will be forgotten. If he wins, it will be another crossroads in the breakdown of the West.