Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “President Trump has directed the Pentagon to remove thousands of American troops from Germany by September.” That’s not exactly right. The National Security Council has indeed prepared a memorandum on potential changes to the number of troops deployed abroad. But Trump has not signed it and the Pentagon has received no orders on moving any troops out of Germany, several officials told me.
“While we have no announcements at this time, as commander in chief, President Trump continually reassesses the best posture for the United States military forces and our presence overseas,” NSC spokesman John Ullyot said.
Nevertheless, the mere thought Trump might withdraw 9,500 troops from the 35,000 currently stationed in Germany, as the Journal reported, prompted 22 Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee to write to Trump on Tuesday urging him not to go ahead with the move.
“We believe that such steps would significantly damage U.S. national security as well as strengthen the position of Russia to our detriment,” the letter stated.
The Defense Department has been conducting a worldwide review of U.S. troop deployments, including a review of forces in Europe, but that was not connected to the White House’s actions. Some officials believe former U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell is behind the Germany idea, a parting shot to his former Berlin hosts. Some think the leak was meant to catch Trump’s attention so he would sign off on the plan. Some think it was a trial balloon, floated so it could be popped by the predictable GOP outrage.
Even if Trump ordered this today, it would be impossible to pull off by September. Moving thousands of troops, their families, and the equipment and support services they rely on is a massive operation that would take months to plan and perhaps years to complete. Most importantly, there’s no consensus on where they would go.
If thousands of troops with their families and gear are returning to the homeland, every lawmaker with a military base in their district will want a say on where they land. And the missions these troops are conducting in Germany aren’t going away, so relocating those operations would require significant time and money. Some officials want to move troops out of Germany but not necessarily bring them back to the United States.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper’s idea is to bring troops home but then rotate them to various overseas bases under a concept he calls “dynamic force deployment.” Troops could help strengthen ties in European countries such as Estonia and Poland, which are closer to Russia and willing to chip in.
Other officials want to move troops to Asia, to implement the pivot several administrations have promised but never delivered. The Trump administration says China is the No. 1 national security threat, so it makes sense to build capacity and strengthen relationships in places such as Australia and Thailand.
Trump’s views are crystal clear. He thinks the United States is footing the bill to protect ungrateful allies and he sees bringing troops home as a campaign promise fulfilled. Trump has used the threat of withdrawing troops to pressure NATO, South Korea and Japan to pay more for hosting U.S. personnel. He’s had some success in dollar terms, but he’s also done profound damage to our alliance relationships.
The administration is withdrawing thousands of troops from Afghanistan and threatening to pull out completely, despite a lack of security progress there. Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria twice — and reversed himself twice after backlash. The “endless wars” are one issue, but the stationing of U.S. forces in Europe and Asia is another.
We don’t need to keep every soldier in Germany exactly where they are now. Nor do we need to undermine all the military ties we’ve built up since 1945. What we need is a real national debate about modernizing our overseas troop posture.
Money is not the most important consideration. We should appropriate military resources according to the threats we face and the capabilities needed to counter those threats, period. We should spend what it costs to keep Americans safe, no more, no less.
But this administration is so disorganized and consumed by its internal and external battles that important national discussion is impossible right now. Meanwhile, our dysfunction is harming our national security, alienating our allies and playing into the hands of our enemies.