Trump’s Retreat from Germany is a Victory for Putin
Trump’s Retreat from Germany is a Victory for Putin
President Donald Trump has confirmed his intent to pull nearly 10,000 troops out of Germany, bringing the US presence there to under 25,000. It’s hard to overstate how poor a decision this is. Cutting these troops is an outright gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin, unnecessarily strains the transatlantic alliance, reduces America’s global readiness to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations, and won’t save the US any money.
Trump’s rationale is that Germany is “delinquent” in payments to the North American Treaty Organization. This is not true: NATO’s budget is apportioned among the 30 member nations, and Germany’s obligations are up to date. While it is correct that Germany has yet to achieve the alliance’s goal of members spending 2% of GDP on their own defense, Berlin has been moving in that direction.
I know these arguments well. When I was the supreme allied commander at NATO, I had an entirely different and parallel job as well: commander of US European Command. I was one of the six geographic combatant commanders, the 4-star admirals or generals who each have the responsibility for the conduct of military operations in a particular region of the world.
At EUCOM, I had a large and capable headquarters staff in Stuttgart, Germany, and a network of bases that stretched across Western Europe. There were about 64,000 personnel from all services on 21 key bases under my command, including around 40,000 people in Germany. It is worth noting, by the way, that this represents an almost 90% reduction in US forces in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
When I think back to that time, three images come to mind.
One is visiting the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, which is the largest medical facility operated by the American military outside the continental US. In addition to providing care for tens of thousands of troops and their families, the hospital was the evacuation point for the hardest-hit of our troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
In those days, we had thousands of badly wounded personnel flowing through the hospital monthly before heading back to the US. As I walked around the wards trying to give some small comfort to the wounded, I was struck by the geographic necessity of having such a facility where our troops could be evacuated relatively quickly and experience the highest quality care.
I also think back on my many trips around Germany to visit with troops just before they were to deploy to the Middle East or Afghanistan. Over and over they would talk about how happy and safe their families felt in the midst of German communities that cared for and about them. Germany paid a substantial portion of the cost to maintain those 40,000 troops in their midst, and has provided excellent facilities. These are not the obsolete bases of the Cold War, but the forward-operating stations of the 21st century.
Finally, I think about my many trips to Afghanistan in that period, visiting the 150,000 troops under my strategic command after the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force took primary responsibility for the war there. Germany was one of the top troop contributors to the Afghan conflict, and lost many soldiers. The Germans had charge of northern Afghanistan, centered on bases around Mazar-i-Sharif, and did superb work under the command of several German generals. I’d also visit the 15,000 NATO troops in the Balkans keeping alive a shaky peace effort in Kosovo, and commanded by a series of outstanding German 2-star generals.
A good question to ask in looking at a major basing decision is quite simple: Who benefits? In this case, certainly not the US, because it will lose strategic bases close to its adversaries. It won’t save any money — in fact, the Pentagon will lose German subsidies. When the troops are moved back to the US, it will require bases to house them, and, if they need to be re-deployed, transportation costs will be significant.
NATO loses as well: I can tell you every US soldier present on the continent helps solidify the alliance and is part of why US allies were willing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Department doesn’t benefit. It will forfeit valuable training opportunities with the highly capable German armed forces. America’s allies will be confused, and question our commitment to achieving shared deterrence of Russia.
Which brings us to the only beneficiary: Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader will use this sudden withdrawal to posture at home (“the US is afraid of getting into a war with Russia”), within Europe (“the US really isn’t committed to your defense”), and internationally in the Middle East and elsewhere (“see how fickle the Americans are toward their supposed allies?”).
All of this is really not about Germany per se. It is about the commitment of the US to its alliance structure in general and to Europe in particular. Why is Europe of such importance to the US?
First, shared values: Europe is home to most of the world’s progressive democracies, nations with which Americans share fundamental values. Second, with a GDP of $20 trillion and status as America’s top trade partner, Europe’s importance to the US and global economies cannot be overstated. Third, the European theater remains critical geostrategic terrain, providing the US with the global access needed to conduct worldwide operations. Fourth, Europe is the backdrop for NATO, history’s most successful and capable alliance. Fifth, Europe is today a “security exporter,” possessing some of the most highly trained and technologically advanced militaries in the world.
There are plenty of good reasons to keep our troops in Germany. I can’t think of a single one that makes sense to pull them out.