“Not Waving but Drowning”

poem by Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

There are at least 104,149 U.S. military personnel who will not be leaving Europe. They rest in military graves, testimony to the cultural affinities and strategic vulnerabilities that produced the transatlantic alliance NATO, now 71 years old.

Intelligent, informed, public-spirited people can support the policy, announced last week, of removing by September about one-third of the 34,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany. Forces there will be capped at 25,000. Some might be moved elsewhere, perhaps to Poland.

The difficulty of assessing this policy illustrates the toll taken by the inability to trust — it is now unreasonable to trust — the character, judgment and veracity of the president or his employees who interpret him to the public. The default assumption must be that this new policy primarily expresses presidential pique, which is always plentiful.

Granted, it is reasonable to pressure Germany, which spends 1.38 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, to reach NATO’s target of 2 percent before, as Germany plans, in 2031. But it also is reasonable to note the following:

Angela Merkel, who has 30 years of experience in politics, including 15 years as Germany’s chancellor, and who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, has bad chemistry with the first U.S. president with no prior government experience, civilian or military, and the first to designate himself a genius. Although the redeployment reportedly has been contemplated for a while, the New York Times reports that “a person briefed on the planning said that it had not been vetted by the National Security Council’s traditional policy deliberation process.” It was announced, perhaps impulsively, after Merkel’s refusal to attend the Group of Seven meeting that President Trump wanted held in Washington at the end of this month. (Trump’s suggestion to permanently enlarge the G-7 by adding Russia was stymied by Britain and Canada, who impertinently reminded him that they have something to say about this.)

The redeployment gratifies Vladimir Putin, who since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has been slowly and not very stealthily dismembering Europe’s geographically largest nation: Ukraine. Putin, the other world figure who is a cauldron of resentments, has a special grievance against NATO for its role in the Soviet Union’s demise, which he considers “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He surely has enjoyed Trump’s denigration of NATO and would relish the alliance’s disintegration. This could be accomplished by proving that Article 5 of the NATO pact has become a nullity: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.” Neither Putin, nor the Baltic states, nor NATO’s members can assume that Article 5 is among the few obligations that Trump takes seriously.

Germany had not been officially notified of the redeployment when the Wall Street Journal reported it. Trump probably believes that manners are for weaklings, but they do lubricate life’s frictions.

Frictions with Europe matter. The Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, announced in 2011, before President Barack Obama’s nine-day trip to Asia, was wiser than the fanfare surrounding it. The European Union is the world’s second-largest economy (the U.S. economy is first), with a per capita income ($35,616) 3.6 times China’s. Europe’s evolving relations with China will be a challenge for Obama’s former vice president beginning next Jan. 20.

Meanwhile, the gerund form of a verb the British use describes Trump’s frequent stance toward allies. “Whinging” is defined as complaining “persistently and in a peevish or irritating way.” Europe, having been pivoted away from, might deserve some politeness.

Congressional Democrats complain that funds appropriated for military logistics in Europe have been diverted to pay for Trump’s border wall. If only the Constitution had given Congress the power of the purse.

Trump is terrified of appearing weak. Polls indicate an increasing probability that he will slink away a loser. He makes some national security decisions from petulance. And he is fascinated with the military as a presidential toy for his amusement, self-expression and political posturing (e.g., the testosterone spill in Lafayette Square). So, this might be pertinent:

During the Nixon administration’s final days, when the president was distraught and erratic, Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger instructed the most senior leaders of the armed services not to obey presidential orders without first consulting him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. One hopes that the Trump administration’s responsible officials, however few they are, remember this episode in the final seven months of a president who is not waving.

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