Pentagon action to withdraw from Germany benefits our adversaries
Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently wrote on these pages to describe the decision to withdraw 11,900 forces from Germany. The plan followed the original directive by President Trump to reduce our forces in Germany because the country is “not paying its bills” and is “very delinquent” in the 2 percent spending goal for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Esper referred to the reduction as “wholly consistent” with the defense strategy of the administration and part of the global review designed to reassure our allies, deter Russia, and maintain operational flexibility.
But this Pentagon decision does absolutely none of these things. It in fact significantly harms all those stated objectives in both the defense strategy and the national security strategy. This punishes Germany simply because Trump takes issue with the country. Let us review what his team declares and what our allies, adversaries, and Americans have seen.
The administration claims it is about the defense strategy and operational flexibility. Strengthening alliances is a cornerstone of the national defense strategy. China and Russia benefit from the United States separating itself from our closest partners, and the announcement actively advances their goals. Defense Secretary James Mattis felt so strongly about standing up for our allies and partners that he resigned when faced with the direction from the White House to sell out its partners. Today, no other principled resignations appear imminent in the wake of this decision.
The decision does not seem to support operational priorities. The national security adviser has recently justified reductions in Germany as needed to support more forces in the Pacific. However, the announcement this week shifts no forces toward that region. Esper rightly acknowledged the need to have a greater presence across the eastern flank, notably on the Black Sea. But the United States has not advanced this concept, having given no details on a future posture in Romania or Bulgaria and no account for how Russia and Turkey could affect operational flexibility.
It is also unclear what operational flexibility is gained by placing forces in Italy and Belgium, two countries which spend less for their defense than Germany, as no other details have been provided. Shifting forces back to the United States creates flexibility, but it comes at the cost of readiness and speed in Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.
The administration claims it is about saving dollars. But these moves will be expensive. Relocating 11,900 forces, dependents, and equipment, and securing new capacity for living, working, and training take more money. Giving away negotiating leverage by making such a decision prematurely costs even more. Congress should be demanding the budget details and preparing to extract a high price with the 2021 defense authorization and appropriations process for any efforts to use 2020 funds for these moves. Appeasing Trump might be the price the Pentagon is willing to place on taxpayers, but Americans should not be penalized for that.
The reality is that this is about a personal grudge against Germany. Trump attempts to frame his fixation as the issue of burden sharing. While this is important, allies should discuss concerns in the context of mutual benefit and responsibility. While the United States and Germany both benefit from our forces in Europe, the decision to reduce such a posture was unilateral. Why was it not preceded by attempted talks over the estimated $1 billion that Germany provides to the United States in shared costs, as has been the traditional case when burden sharing concerns arise?
It is also ironic that the majority of our forces leaving Germany are headed to Italy and Belgium, which are both countries that spend less on defense in total and as the portion of gross domestic product than Germany. Even with the 2 percent measure of defense commitment that was spotlighted by Trump, the United States had a better deal in Germany.
The announcement has now laid bare the hollowness of rhetoric from our defense officials, military leaders, and diplomats who regularly herald the importance of our allies and of the transatlantic relationship. Before these officials deliver their next false claims about how such decisions reassure our allies and deter Russia, they should take a hard look in the mirror. The decisions like those made this week will harm both national security and the fiscal situation of the United States for years to come.
Heather Conley is a senior vice president and the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kathleen Hicks is also senior vice president and the director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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