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Trump’s reasoning is bad, but withdrawing troops from Germany is a good idea

Trump’s petty, ego-driven policy decisions sometimes land in the right place.

The Pentagon’s announcement that around 12,000 U.S. troops will leave Germany, reducing the American force presence there by a third and continuing decades of similar reductions, was widely met with derision in Washington from policymakers on both sides of the aisle. The Trump administration’s decision is dangerous and irresponsible, critics said, raising three primary objections: that the withdrawal will be expensive, that it will hurt U.S. allies, and that it will be a gift for Russia.

Each of these objections is wrong.

There’s little doubt President Trump’s reasoning behind this decision is less than strategic. The narrative, fed by Trump’s own comments Wednesday, that the withdrawal is intended mainly as a snub to German Chancellor Angela Merkel is more than plausible. But however petty the president’s motive, drawing down U.S. troop levels in Europe is prudent.

Let’s consider each objection in turn. First, the money. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the withdrawal cost will be in the “single digits” of billions of dollars, spread out over several years. By the standard of a Pentagon budget which now tops $700 billion annually, this is small change. Reporting which neglects that context is misleading, as are accounts which fail to mention that maintaining this deployment is not free. Germany covered $1 billion of the costs of stationing of U.S. troops in Germany from 2010 to 2019, which was about 20 percent of the total expense. The few billions spent removing these troops will be balanced out by reducing deployment costs over the next decade or so. In the long-term, leaving is cheaper.

More important are questions of strategy. Will this withdrawal hurt Germany and other NATO allies? “The U.S. troop reduction is not in the security interests of Germany or NATO,” said Peter Beyer, Germany’s coordinator of transatlantic cooperation.

That’s far from obvious. For one thing, most of the departing troops will be stationed in NATO Europe. Some “5,600 service members will be repositioned within NATO countries,” Esper said in his announcement, “and approximately 6,400 will return to the United States, though many of these or similar units will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe.”

Moreover, the U.S. deployment in Germany includes only a single infantry brigade and “consists mostly of enabling forces and headquarters.” Their purpose is not actually defense of Germany, which can ably take care of itself, as can NATO Europe more generally. This withdrawal is less significant than it may initially sound, but insofar as it prompts changes in the U.S.-NATO relationship, we could see needful reform, a Europe belatedly taking responsibility for its own defense.

U.S. foreign policy could benefit as well. American bases in Germany are significantly a “platform to … project power into the Middle East and North Africa,” Jeff Rathke, a Johns Hopkins scholar and State Department veteran, told The Washington Post. Rathke meant that as a word of caution against withdrawal, but it may land differently with the majority of Americans who have long since tired of “project[ing] power” — a nice euphemism for endless war, occupation, and nation building — “into the Middle East and North Africa.” (Speaking of, if Washington suddenly has an urge to save billions on foreign policy, I have half a dozen ideas.) Reducing our overseas footprint in Germany and beyond is a crucial aspect of refocusing our foreign policy on diplomacy, defense, and restraint.

Lastly, does this withdrawal help Russia? Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah branded it a “gift to Russia,” as did former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice. The assumptions here deserve interrogation. The notion that Russia will invade Germany — a nation far wealthier, better defended, and assured of U.S. support in event of actual conflict — is laughable. A Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe is likely inevitable, but Moscow is far from the global power it was at the height of the Soviet Union. Even the idea that keeping U.S. troops in Germany is a useful way to counter Russia should be re-examined: Their presence did not deter Russian encroachment into Ukraine, but keeping U.S. forces stationed in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, certainly fosters needless risk of escalation in U.S.-Russian relations.

By his own account, Trump is not thinking through any of this. His aim seems to be punishing Berlin for perceived personal slights. But the strategic value for drawing down the U.S.’s risky global network of military bases, including in Germany, remains regardless of how Trump stumbled into it. This withdrawal should be the first of many.

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