After spending months threatening to pull troops out of Germany, President Trump is getting his way. The Department of Defense has announced that about 12,000 personnel will be redeployed from that country, capping the level of U.S. forces in Germany at 24,000. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insists that this is a strategic redeployment; the president, on the other hand, calls it a penalty for Germany’s inability or unwillingness to devote 2 percent of its budget to NATO defense spending.
The fact that both Belgium and Italy, two locales to which the U.S. troops will be redeployed, likewise have not met the 2 percent target would indicate that the real reason behind the redeployment is neither its strategic purpose nor Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s spending targets. Indeed, it is questionable whether Italy, in particular, has the infrastructure to support the fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing that is to be deployed there.
Rather, as with many other instances in this administration, the move appears to be simply a matter of presidential pique. The president has viewed Germany as an adversary, the moving force behind the European Union’s refusal to kowtow to him on tariffs and trade. Germany also has been a leading proponent of maintaining a semblance of relations with Iran, having been a key advocate for reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear agreement that President Trump rejected and abandoned. That he apparently cannot stomach Chancellor Angela Merkel likewise cannot be ruled out as a factor motivating his decision.
And then there is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who becomes the true beneficiary of the Pentagon’s redeployment. America’s presence in Germany is as much a psychological deterrent to any aggressive intentions in Moscow as it is a critical hub for early warning and quick responses to potential Russian attacks in Eastern Europe. It appears that President Trump cannot bring himself to contradict, much less criticize, the Russian president. Putin wants American troops out of Europe and Trump is giving him a down payment of 6,400 who will come home and only return to Europe on rotational deployments, which is not quite the same thing as a permanent presence.
Forward deployment of American forces always has been a financial bargain as well as a strategic asset. In some cases, American units benefit from direct financial contributions by the host country. In other cases, the contribution is indirect. German support in this category amounts to several hundreds of millions of dollars. In still other cases, as is also true with Germany, the host nation will provide support for U.S. forces during a crisis or conflict. Indeed, a 1982 agreement, which I negotiated, provided for Germany to supply 83,000 reservists in the event of a crisis with the Soviet Union. Germany has never renounced the agreement.
Moving troops home, or redeploying them elsewhere in Europe, will require the military to spend money on military construction to support new facilities and housing for the families of military personnel. The Department of Defense estimates the cost to be less than $10 billion, but DOD is notorious for understating its program costs. In any event, since it is unlikely that the defense budget will increase in real or even nominal terms over the next several years, redeployment will be funded at the expense of other long-planned defense programs.
It will take several years for the administration’s redeployment plan to be carried out. Should Joe Biden be the next president, the plan likely will be stopped in its tracks. Biden, a former longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee, is well aware of the importance of Germany to the alliance, and the importance of keeping troops in Germany. Should Trump be re-elected, however, the redeployment is likely to be only the first step in a multistage effort to pull all troops out of Europe.
That would clear the way for Putin’s next aggressive adventure – a nightmarish prospect that should terrify not only Europeans, but all Americans who care about the nation’s security, both in the immediate future and for the longer term.
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.