Trump orders large withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany
President stuns NATO allies, including Germany, with unilateral move seen as benefit to Russia.
Perhaps only President Donald Trump could turn a withdrawal of troops into an act of aggression.
The president has directed the Pentagon to reduce sharply the number of U.S. military forces stationed in Germany, where a heavy presence of GIs has long served as a symbol of Washington’s commitment to protecting its European allies.
The White House would not confirm the plan, which was first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal, but current and former officials familiar with it said Trump would cap the U.S. military presence at 25,000 — requiring a reduction of nearly 30 percent, or roughly 9,700 troops.
As of March 31, there were 34,674 U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany, including 20,774 from the Army and 12,980 from the Air Force, according to the most recent publicly-available Pentagon deployment report.
Some 19,000 additional civilian employees support the uniformed military forces, and that number would almost certainly be cut as a result of the planned withdrawals.
The reduction in forces stands to reverse an increase in the U.S. military presence in Europe during Trump’s administration, which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has trumpeted repeatedly to refute any suggestion that America’s commitment to the alliance might be wavering under the president who once called it “obsolete” and who has repeatedly bashed allies for not spending enough on their own militaries.
Stoltenberg has pointed to the increased U.S. presence as part of NATO’s effort to step up deterrence against an increasingly aggressive and assertive Russia. Moscow undoubtedly will cheer any reduction in the U.S. military footprint in Europe, which the Kremlin has regarded as a menacing presence since the days of the Cold War.
“Sometimes we also hear that the U.S. is leaving Europe — that’s not correct,” Stoltenberg said at a conference in London on the sidelines of a NATO leaders’ summit in December. “The U.S. is actually increasing their presence in Europe … So there’s more U.S. presence in Europe, more U.S. troops in Europe. I can’t think about any stronger way to demonstrate U.S. commitment to Europe than that.”
There were no indications that NATO officials had been briefed on Trump’s plan ahead of time. In response to a request for comment on Saturday, a NATO spokesman referred questions to the U.S.
In recent months, the U.S. president has occasionally caught allies off-guard with unilateral military action, including an abrupt withdrawal from northern Syria that set off turmoil in the region, and the surprise targeted killing of an Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, that forced NATO to suspend its training mission in Iraq for fear of reprisals on allied forces there.
Trump’s pullout from northern Syria put the U.S. in conflict with Turkey, another NATO ally, and prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to complain that he was witnessing the “brain death” of the alliance.
On Friday, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, John Ullyot, issued a statement that neither confirmed nor denied Trump’s drawdown plan for Germany.
“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,” Ullyot said. “The United States remains committed to working with our strong ally Germany to ensure our mutual defense, as well as on many other important issues.”
News that the White House was pushing forward with the withdrawal comes as transatlantic relations are as badly strained as at any point during Trump’s tumultuous tenure in office, and just days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed an invitation from Trump to attend a G7 leaders’ summit in Washington later this month.
Merkel cited the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a chief reason for begging off from an in-person gathering of the world’s richest, most powerful democracies. But officials familiar with the discussions also said she worried about leaders being used as a photo-op by Trump to show him getting the world back to business following the health lockdowns.
In the meantime, the U.S. has become engulfed in a nationwide crisis over racism and police brutality, with Trump threatening to deploy active-duty military forces on the streets of his own cities.
Trump’s withdrawal plan appeared to be less a form of direct retribution for Merkel’s G7 decision, but rather a follow-through on previous threats to reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany, which were conveyed by the U.S. ambassador, Ric Grenell, as part of the overall White House criticism of Berlin’s military spending as too meager.
Merkel and Trump have never had a good relationship, with the president criticizing her handling of migration and asylum policy, as well as denouncing the NordStream 2 gas pipeline project.
Germany, in turn, has pushed back harder than nearly any other NATO ally against Trump’s criticism over military spending, noting that allies were all working toward previously agreed-upon spending goals and also stressing that contributions to NATO could be counted in other ways, particularly in terms of operational support. And Merkel has made little secret of her disdain for Trump’s disruptive approach to world politics.
Despite previous threats, the news of the drawdown appeared to catch Berlin by surprise. The German defense ministry declined a request for comment. The German news magazine Der Spiegel said Trump’s move was clearly “a provocation.”
Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag and a contender to succeed Merkel as chancellor, criticized the move Saturday, calling U.S. forces in Germany “crucial” and saying a reduction “would be deplorable.”
“Cannot see any objective reason for this,” Röttgen tweeted.
Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, told POLITICO that the withdrawal of troops was not justified by strategic thinking or analysis.
“I believe this is a colossal mistake,” said Hodges, who now holds the Pershing chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank. “This is purely political.”
Hodges said that the move had caught virtually everyone by surprise, from the Pentagon and Congress to U.S. diplomats and military officials in Europe, NATO leaders and allies, especially Germany. Hodges said that Russia would be a main beneficiary of the withdrawal — and that a softening of U.S. posture was hardly justified.
“The Kremlin has done nothing to deserve a gift like this,” he said. “No change in behavior in Ukraine or Syria or along NATO’s eastern flank or in the Black Sea or Georgia, Yet they get a 28 percent reduction in the size of U.S. military capability that was a core part of NATO’s deterrence.”
With seemingly little preparation for such a big redeployment, it’s far from clear how quickly Trump’s order could be carried out, especially with the continuing pandemic causing added logistical difficulties. “It will be very difficult and disruptive and expensive to move several thousands of soldiers and airmen back to the States,” Hodges said.
POLITICO – Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.