In one sense, the contretemps over the White House’s threat to use active-duty Army forces to secure order in Washington, DC has been a blessing to the Trump Administration, for it largely diverted media and political attention from the president’s decision—the day before the anniversary of the “D-Day” landings in Normandy in 1944—to reduce by more than a quarter the number of troops now stationed in Germany.
The rationale and the timing of the withdrawal are both murky. News reports claimed that some senior defense and national security officials were surprised at the move, but Richard Grenell, a long-time Trump loyalist, former Ambassador to Germany and until his recent resignation, and acting Director of National Intelligence, argued that the move “had been in the works for the past year.” This is likely to be true; from the 2016 campaign onward, Trump has suggested he might pull out of the NATO alliance, complained about Europeans’ failure to fulfill their commitment to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, and picked fights with European leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In many ways, it’s a surprise that the troop reduction didn’t happen sooner.
But if the drawdown plan was predictable, it’s still an awful idea. The U.S. position in Germany is key to its entire European posture and central to its role in preserving a favorable balance of power on the continent. While Germany itself is no longer a “frontline” state as it was in the Cold War, the forces that remain are essential for support of operations and exercises from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The U.S. Army, in particular, is based in southern and western Germany, hundreds of miles distant from the Baltic States, Poland, or southeastern Europe—that is, the frontline NATO states of today. Simply moving troops among alliance member states in peacetime conditions is a laborious, time-and-manpower consuming effort.
It is probable that, when the Pentagon gets around to justifying the cuts, it will do so as part of its “dynamic force employment” strategy—a strategy of unpredictable deployments intended to keep adversaries guessing about how and when U.S. forces will show up. Bring the troops home so we can deploy them wherever and whenever we think there is the need. It’s a clever way of trying to have the appearance of doing more with less, in this case too small an active-duty military. But while this might work to some degree with an air force that can rapidly fly to most anyplace on the globe, it’s less viable when talking about naval forces and even less so when talking about ground forces. Besides the time delay and potential difficulties of transport, the fact remains that troop rotations are more costly than basing those same forces in theater. Force “dynamism” is the opposite of deterrence, which relies on the predictability and practicality of an American response.
The strategic and geopolitical view is, if anything, even worse than are the strictly military considerations. This is a huge propaganda gift to Vladimir Putin and a blow to America’s closest allies. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative Party chair of the foreign affairs committee in the British Parliament, said Trump’s surprising decision would encourage European nations “to listen less to the U.S.;” his colleague on the defense committee, Tobias Ellwood, lamented that “weakening NATO in the hope this will lead to increased German defense is a dangerous game which plays into Russia’s hands.” The Germans aren’t very happy, either. Peter Beyer, Merkel’s coordinator for transatlantic relations, warned that “the German-US relationship could be severely affected” by Trump’s decision. But the move is likely to be most keenly felt across Eastern Europe. Unsteady politically in many instances, it will not take long for them to start calculating which side of the great power contest in their region has the advantage.