President Trump's costly obsession

President Trump's costly obsession
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President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE is known to have no shortage of obsessions. But one that has especially rattled America’s allies is his ongoing demand that they not only cover all the costs of any U.S. forces based on their soil, but that they pay an additional 50 percent premium as well, for receiving American protection.

Thus far, the Trump administration has not formally raised the matter with European allies or Japan, but it did so during the negotiations for sharing the costs of the 26,300 military personnel based in South Korea. It was only when the talks were on the verge of collapse that the United States withdrew its “cost plus 50” proposal. But that does not mean that Trump dropped the idea. Far from it.


To begin with, the cost-sharing agreement with Seoul, which normally has a five-year duration, is limited to one year; clearly the administration intends to revive its proposal — or, to be more precise, its demand — in 12 months’ time. In the meantime, the president has reiterated his determination to make what he terms “wealthy, wealthy countries that we’re protecting” pay for that protection. His language, like the idea itself, reminds me of my youth in Brooklyn, when everyone knew that certain shops paid for mafia “protection.” The president, who grew up in neighboring Queens, perhaps has taken a liking to the idea.

The financial implications of the president’s demand are stunning. There are over 35,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen stationed in Germany. Nearly 13,000 more are based in Italy, over 9,000 in Britain, and some 6,000 more elsewhere in Western Europe. Poland, Hungary and Romania are hosts to about 600 U.S. military personnel, but Poland is on record as requesting a full Army division to be stationed on its territory. Japan hosts over 56,000 personnel from all five services. The president apparently is initially targeting Germany and Japan, with others to follow. Were he to get his way, the cost to both Berlin and Tokyo would run into the billions of dollars.

Perhaps Germany, and later the other NATO allies that host U.S. forces, will include their “cost plus 50” Danegeld as part of their commitment to allocate 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product to defense spending. Were they to do so, the president might have satisfied his obsession, but the plan would add nothing to their defense capabilities. Indeed it would undermine any efforts they may have undertaken to bolster their defense budgets.

Alternately, nations hosting American forces would ask that they return home; that most likely would be the case in Germany, where America has become increasingly unpopular. In either case, NATO would be by far the worst off, and the true beneficiary of the Trump plan would not be the United States but, rather, Vladimir Putin. Similarly, in the Western Pacific, should Japan accede to the president’s demand, the primary beneficiary would be China’s Xi Jinping, since many Japanese — especially those on Okinawa, where a Marine amphibious force is based — would like nothing more than to have the Americans go home.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan asserted Thursday: “We’re not going to run a business, and we’re not going to run a charity. … At the end of the day, people need to carry their fair share … but it is not about cost plus 50 percent.” No doubt Shanahan was perfectly sincere, but it would not be the first time that a Cabinet official was later overruled by the president (think Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Mattis).  

A senior visiting European defense official confirmed to me that the plan was raised by a National Security Council staffer, giving credence to reports that Trump is serious about this proposal. At the same time, Swedish and Finnish defense officials have made it clear that if ever there was a near-term hope that their respective countries might join NATO, the president’s attitude towards America’s treaty allies have foreclosed that possibility for the foreseeable future.

The president’s seeming insistence on total cost recovery for American forces stationed on allied territory indicates that he really has never understood the implicit bargain that those forces represent. In deploying forces “forward,” America does indeed provide a security umbrella for its allies. In return, however, the very fact that those forces are stationed on allied territory ensures that, should deterrence fail, a conventional war, and all the damage such a war would entail, would not be fought on American soil.

Shanahan and senior Department of Defense officials fully comprehend the priceless value to America that such a bargain represents. Nevertheless, perhaps the allies should charge Trump for the privilege of his country’s not having to fight a war at home — and then add on a 50 percent surcharge for good measure.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.