Last week, reports emerged that President Trump ordered a significant reduction of U.S. troops stationed in Germany. While many have criticized the substance of this decision, some top officials have recently told reporters that the real problem was that the administration did not go through the right process, accusing the president of failing to work though the Pentagon and the rest of the government.
Concerns over process have historically been used to hinder the ability of presidents to adopt a more restrained foreign policy when doing so has contradicted the wishes of the national security bureaucracy. In order to change U.S. foreign policy in a substantial way, President Trump or any other future American leader may need to forgo process concerns.
For example, President Obama came into office skeptical of nation-building in Afghanistan. As a first-term Democratic president without military experience, Obama didn’t appear to have the domestic political capital for a quick pullout, so he ordered a policy review that took up most of his first year in office. Throughout that time period, decisionmakers in the military, including General David Petraeus, used public statements and selective leaks to create political pressure on the administration to escalate in Afghanistan.
Former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has since recounted how “the White House, including Obama, read about these things in the newspaper before the recommendations reached his desk,” adding, “They were boxing Obama into sending troops into Afghanistan and setting him up to take the blame for any bad outcomes that followed if he didn’t…” Ultimately, Obama ordered a surge, the result of which has been another decade of bloody stalemate.
Eight years later, President Trump came into office unsympathetic towards the Afghanistan mission. His advisers similarly did whatever they could to keep the war going. Defense Secretary James Mattis ultimately resigned due to disagreements over Syria and Afghanistan. Only in the last few years has the president begun the process of extricating the U.S. from Afghanistan as he promised to do during his campaign. Trump’s attempts to leave Syria have been met with leaks to the press warning about the dire consequences of withdrawal, leaving him unwilling or unable to act on his instincts.
In reality, nobody has been able to credibly argue why upwards of 52,00 American military personnel are needed in Germany, and what the U.S. or its allies lose by adhering to the 25,000 cap that President Trump reportedly wants.
The U.S. originally kept its personnel in that country to deter a Soviet invasion. By the 1960s at the latest, it was clear that no such invasion was coming, and it has already been three decades since the Soviet Union ceased to even exist. In the past few decades, Germany has gone from a divided nation at the frontlines of the Cold War to a country with the fourth-largest economy in the world and no territorial disputes with its neighbors.
In 2016, Trump ran and won on a platform skeptical of long-term alliances involving American troop commitments that were not clearly tied to national security goals. By any measure, our presence in Germany certainly qualifies. Trump’s former Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, recently said that the president might want to go further in the future, telling an interviewer that “Donald Trump was very clear, we want to bring troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan, from Germany.”
A more drawn-out process to bring the troops home from Germany or anywhere else would be unlikely to reveal any relevant new information — but would provide an opportunity for opponents of the policy to try and sabotage it by bureaucratically outmaneuvering the president and raising the political costs of withdrawal. Already on Tuesday, nearly two dozen Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the White House urging it to change course. The more time they are given until the decision is implemented, the more concentrated interests will have time to raise the political costs of changing the status quo.
Since the end of the Cold War, multiple American presidents have come into office skeptical of certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Nonetheless, they have mostly grown the military budget, increased commitments abroad, and avoided fundamental changes that would leave behind a less militarized foreign policy.
One of the reasons for this is institutional. Many in Washington oppose a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. Cautious leaders focused on their own approval ratings and mindful of their political capital face risks by telegraphing their intentions too early, or subjecting their decisions to a long “process.”
To defeat The Blob, a term often used to refer to those representing the foreign policy consensus in Washington, it may be necessary to bypass what the establishment considers proper process and simply rip the band-aid off. In other words, rather than allowing bureaucratic hurdles to stand in the way of real reform, quickly creating new facts on the ground can help bypass networks committed to keeping a large military presence abroad — and ultimately lead to a less aggressive American foreign policy.