Trump’s explanation to reporters about the pullout, announced Wednesday morning by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, has distorted how NATO works and contradicts its own military officials, raising questions about the strategy – if any – that motivated the decision.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah described Trump’s decision as “a gift to Russia” and a “slap in the face to a friend and ally.” Romney added that “the consequences will be lasting and detrimental to American interests.”
Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said aspects of the move, including the cap on US personnel in Germany, were “troubling.”
Rachel Rizzo, director of programs at the Truman National Security Project, which specializes in European security, said: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to see the benefits. “
The former commanding general of the US Army in Europe, retired Lieutenant-General Mark Hertling, said in a tweet that he was “sickened by this decision and this explanation. This is not linked to any strategic advantage and is in fact counterproductive in showing its strength in Europe. . ”
And retired U.S. Navy Admiral Jim Stravidis, the former military commander in Europe and NATO, tweeted that “abruptly withdrawing 12,500 troops from Germany (to put half of them in countries that spend LESS on defense) does not return financially, undermines the solidarity of NATO as a whole and is a gift for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. ”
The withdrawal of US troops from Germany pulls them from a central location with a sophisticated transportation and logistics network that accelerates the movement of troops and equipment in Europe and beyond – providing a powerful counterbalance to Russia, analysts said.
Shrinking the US footprint in Germany could waste billions spent on recent upgrades to US military facilities there and require billions more to replicate those resources elsewhere. Among other problems, military analysts also say that replacing permanent troops with rotational forces can make training with host nations more difficult and create morale problems.
Analysts and lawmakers have raised the prospect that Trump simply wanted to punish German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he has a chilly relationship and whom he angrily berated on private phone calls. And they highlighted the advantages obtained by Moscow and Putin, which the president cultivated.
Trump himself appeared to underscore this reflection on Wednesday, saying the troop cuts were linked to Berlin’s inability to meet defense spending targets and not the strategic reasons Esper explained when he announced the move, which included the fight against Moscow.
The president recently spoke with Putin last Friday, the latest in a series of phone calls CNN’s Marshall Cohen documented as the most sustained and publicly disclosed period of contact between the two leaders. In an interview published Wednesday, Trump told Axios that in that conversation he did not raise US intelligence that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan.
It is not clear whether the two leaders discussed Trump’s plan to reduce the US military presence in Germany, which is supposed to be a bulwark against possible Russian aggression. But after Esper announced the troop withdrawal, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “the champagne must flow freely in the Kremlin tonight.”
Esper explained that the current plan is to displace around 11,900 military personnel from Germany, reducing their number from around 36,000 to 24,000. Of those leaving Germany, some 5,400 “will remain in Europe,” said a senior US defense official. The remaining 6,400 soldiers and their families will be returned to the United States and will eventually be redeployed to Europe.
Although Esper said the move was intended to deter Russia, it does not appear that US troops are permanently repositioned in countries closest to NATO’s eastern border with Russia, despite requests from long standing of these countries for such forces.
Italy and Belgium
The president of one of these countries, Lithuania, posted on Twitter: “We are ready to accept more American troops”.
But the vast majority of troops who remain permanently in Europe will rather be relocated to Italy or Belgium, and not to the countries most concerned by the Russian threat.
“There are or could also be other opportunities to move additional forces to Poland and the Baltic States,” Esper said, without offering many details.
The withdrawal of American troops from Germany deprives them of what Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, calls “the best place from which they can operate.” The German logistics network, which the United States can access, is very sophisticated – the airfields and bases, the rail network, which allows the United States to move material. ”
Germany is also “a central location from which the United States can travel,” said Rathke. Emphasizing the combination of Germany’s location with its transport and logistics, Rathke said, “You can’t replicate that in other places. They do not exist in Poland or further east. ”
Menendez noted in a statement that Germany is not only allowing “an enhanced Forward Presence effort in Eastern Europe to counter Russia,” but also “for American security interests across the Middle East and l ‘Africa’.
“This platform is not easily replicated elsewhere,” Menendez said.
There is also the question of how much it will cost American taxpayers at a time of record budget deficits in the United States. The military decision will potentially cost “several billion dollars,” Esper said Wednesday.
The Pentagon would abandon billions spent between 2004 and 2011 on upgrades to secure and consolidate key US military sites in Germany, Hertling said, so that it no longer has to duplicate facilities such as housing, schools, headquarters and barracks in new places.
Rathke points out that there are also costs to bring troops back to the United States. “If you want to bring people back from Germany, where are you going to place them and has it been budgeted, whether it’s housing or basic infrastructure for those people coming back from Europe. ”
NATO said in a statement that the announcement “underscores the United States’ continued commitment to NATO and European security.”
But Hertling said that “what is obvious to me – after serving 12 years in Germany and participating in the last force structure change from 2004 to 2011, this is not a ‘strategic’ decision. Instead, he said, “this is disruptive and affects readiness… especially when all of this is happening without a prior plan.”
Further, Hertling was among those who argued that the president’s decision was to “punish Merkel” and “is specifically a personal insult directed by Trump to our great and very supportive ally Germany.”
Agathe Demarais, director of global forecasts at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said the move is part of a larger story of disintegration in US-German relations that “is in part due to mutual enmity between political leaders from the two. country ”. Merkel and Trump “are different characters and have failed to make any connection since Trump came to power in 2016”.
The Germans themselves have pointed out that by moving American troops, the Trump administration appears to be defeating some of its stated objectives.
“By withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany, the United States is realizing the exact opposite of what Esper pointed out,” the head of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Roettgen, who is a staunch ally, tweeted on Wednesday. by Merkel. “Instead of strengthening #NATO, this will weaken the alliance,” Roettgen said. “The military weight of the United States will not increase, but will decrease compared to Russia and the Near and Middle East. ”
In Bavaria, which hosts several US bases, the state governor, a member of Merkel’s conservative bloc, said: “We very much regret the decision of the US government.”
“Unfortunately, this is seriously damaging German-American relations,” said Markus Soeder. “A military advantage cannot be seen. It weakens NATO and the United States itself. “
Fred Pleitgen of CNN in Berlin contributed to this report.