On Sunday, in the Wall Street Journal, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien provided the logic behind the Trump Administration’s decision to cut nearly 10,000 troops presently stationed in Germany and, in turn, cap U.S. troop levels at 25,000 going forward. It’s a logic that doesn’t hold up, geopolitically or militarily.
America’s alliances with its principal World War II foes, Germany and Japan, in concert with the ability to retain its Anglophone allies in that conflict, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have formed the backbone of the “strategic West” for the last eight decades. In that time, this coalition has grown to include most of the rest of Europe and much of the western Pacific. It’s also been the nest for a remarkable growth in representative and liberal government.
Germany has long been the keystone to this structure. During the Cold War, it was the central front but also the irrefutable and shining example of the 20th-century American intent to liberate and democratize rather than colonize. The government in Berlin is as robust a democracy as any, and the paradigm of a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal international system. One needn’t read between the lines of the O’Brien op-ed to see that the President cares not a whit to preserve the alliance he inherited. Rather, it reaffirms the view from outside the government that the troop reduction had more to do with Trump’s own pique at Germany and its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, than any strategic plan. As O’Brien notes, the President “confirmed the plans” last Monday but the “details remain under development.”
O’Brien further attempts to obfuscate the matter by advancing—against all human experience—the shopworn argument made repeatedly since the end of the Cold War that changes in military technology have so transformed the nature of war that all prior concepts are outmoded. Thus the National Security Advisor begins by stating that U.S. forces “must be deployed in a more forward and expeditionary manner than they have been in recent years.” To begin with, “forward” and “expeditionary” are nearly contradictory terms. The best deterrent to adversary mischief—especially of the salami-slicing sort that Russian and China have grown so fond of in the absence of a regular U.S. presence—is forward-based forces in permanent residence near the places under contention; hence NATO spent the Cold War patrolling the inner German border. The first purpose was not to stop the Red Army cold, but to ensure that, if the horde moved west, it would engage multiple members of the alliance from the start. This reduced the natural propensity of all coalitions to shirk their responsibilities or make a separate peace. “Expeditionary” forces, even when rotationally deployed to hot spots, do not provide so solid a guarantee—it costs more and takes time to deploy and to sustain units based far from the battlefield. Transoceanic deployments are among the most vulnerable and difficult operations; the D-Day invasion of June 1944 marked one of the few exceptions to this near-rule of military history. But O’Brien appears, knowingly or not, in line with the school of “offshore balancing” so beloved by those who wish to “restrain” American leadership, to constrain intervention by removing the option for doing so.
To its credit, the Trump Administration has followed the initiative of the Obama Administration to actually return U.S. forces to Germany, and to move semi-permanently into western Poland; the eastward expansion of the Atlantic Alliance has not been backed up by sufficient bolstering of forces in Eastern Europe. But the new NATO “perimeter” runs from the Baltic to the Black Sea, a much longer trace than the old, Cold-War one. Moving U.S. forces farther eastward while thinning them out and diminishing capabilities and capacity in the “support zone”—that is, Germany—makes the alliance and American military posture dangerously brittle. Forward-operating forces become less of a deterrent and more likely to be hostages. When O’Brien argues that the “Cold War practice of garrisoning large number of troops with their families on massive bases like Germany is now, in part, obsolete,” he attacks a straw man—the United States no longer has hundreds of thousands of troops there, and the basing that is there is the minimal required to train forces. But these German bases are essential to expedite the transition of deploying U.S. and other NATO forces to forward theaters, and to host the limited logistic and combat force necessary to maintain any credibility to back our NATO allies facing Russia.
O’Brien then suggests the troops in Germany may be “reassigned to other countries in Europe,” or may “redeploy” to U.S. bases in Guam, Japan, Hawaii, and Alaska, or may just come home. He might as well be saying, “we’re making this up as we go.” No doubt, deploying more troops to the frontline allied states of Eastern Europe makes sense. The Black Sea region at present is undermanned, with too few military platforms. Yet, absent more permanent basing and command infrastructure, to do so would require rotating forces in and back out to the United States in ways that are expensive, even more stressful to military families, and, in a time of crisis, iffy logistically as ports, rails, and roads become contested and congested byways. As for moving forces to Guam and Japan, those bases are already crammed full and, if anything, look more like the Cold War targets that O’Brien was talking about avoiding in Germany than not.
Moving troops back to the continental United States is more likely since there is excess basing available, although even there, funds for military upkeep and construction have lagged keeping installations up to snuff either for the troops or their families. But, of course, the strategic problem is that troops in the contiguous United States are a long way from the very fronts where the conflict will likely take place.
As we noted in an earlier piece on this issue:
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. . . . Force “dynamism” is the opposite of deterrence, which relies on the predictability and practicality of an American response.
In fact, judging from the way the National Security Advisor tosses around possible redeployment sites for the troops leaving Germany, one gets the sense that they well could be parceled out in various theaters. The overall impact would be to undo what the Pentagon and NATO have actually accomplished in fixing the too severe cuts made in the early Obama years in Europe. Their “European Reassurance Initiative” was a belated response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and further attacks in Ukraine. Those early cuts were supposed to enable Obama’s “Pacific Pivot,” but they were, in fact, just further force reductions. There is no reason to believe that Trump’s moves will prove any different. When a national security official promises to introduce defense “reforms,” the alleged innovations invariably are to follow budget reductions.
As O’Brien concludes the op-ed, it’s clear that the real game afoot is to use the threat of the troop reduction to get Germany to up its defense budget, block the use of Huawei in German telecom infrastructure, and not complete the Nord Stream II pipeline carrying gas from Russia to the European continent through Germany. While each of these goals is worthy, the facts remain that German defense spending has been on the rise for several years, the German parliament is pushing back against the government’s plans for Huawei, and the pipeline is over 90 percent complete. German reaction to the troop cuts and the underlying threat will be, as ours would be, to get its sovereign dander up. The political dynamic playing out here is likely to result in Washington failing in all three areas. Toss in making the German air force’s desire to buy 90 American built fighter-bombers to modernize their force a far more difficult proposition for the German parliament to swallow, and you have losses all around.
Presented with this surprise press from the White House, the rest of the government should respond with four-corners stall-ball. Congress, in particular, should include provisions in both the defense authorization and appropriations bill to block precipitate administration action. They should demand that plans for the troop cuts in Germany being drawn up by Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense be properly formulated and be fully reviewed across the alliance. As two dozen senior House Republicans wrote in response to the Wall Street Journal story reporting the troop-withdrawal leak: “[W]e believe that our continued strong involvement in the alliance is fundamental to our nation’s security and integral to protecting our people. Withdrawals and limitations of the kind being reported would make that job more difficult.” The Congress has the motive, means, and opportunity to prevent a strategic crime. Let’s hope they also have the will.