Often in Washington, DC politics, when something is embarrassing or controversial, the news is announced on late Friday afternoon. The theory is that most of the country has checked out for the weekend and the story will get less attention. Friday news drops during nationwide riots get even less attention. That was the case last Friday when the Trump Administration unveiled a plan to reduce the number of US troops in Germany by about a third.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Friday that President Trump has already signed off on the plan, which would permanently reduce the number of American soldiers in Germany from 34,500 to 25,000. The plan was reportedly pushed by Richard Grenell, now the acting director of national intelligence and formerly the ambassador to Germany.
When the story broke, Germany had not yet been informed of the plan and it was unclear whether Congress had been told. The plan had been referred to the Defense Department for implementation.
The United States has maintained forces in Germany since WWII. The mission was originally to occupy Germany but soon shifted to defending Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. Over the past few decades, American bases in Germany have been important transshipment points for the War on Terror.
There are currently 19 US military bases in Germany per MilitaryBases.com. Two are airbases while the remainder are army installations. Among the most famous of these are Ramstein Airbase and Landstuhl Medical Center, which was the first stop on the way home for many American soldiers wounded in the Middle East.
It is not clear what forces would be withdrawn from Germany, but it is likely that they would be frontline troops deployed to fend off the Russians while airbases and support facilities would remain. Even at the height of the Cold War, the US did not maintain a large enough force to fight off an invasion. The defense of Europe would have hinged on the ability to reinforce the prepositioned units with soldiers based in the US.
An annual military exercise, REFORGER, practiced the REturn of FORces to GERmany and was conducted between 1969 and 1993. A similar exercise, DefenderEurope, is scheduled to be conducted this year.
Trump’s move to draw down American forces in Germany comes amid Russian aggression in Europe. Vladimir Putin’s proxy army has been waging war in Ukraine since 2014.
President Trump has long been critical of US military deployments around the world but has waffled when it comes to actually bringing troops home. In 2016, then-candidate Trump said that the US should “rethink” its commitment to NATO because “it’s costing us too much money.” After becoming president, Trump scolded NATO members for not spending enough on defense and only reluctantly affirmed his commitment to NATO’s mutual defense clause. The only time that the clause has been invoked was when the US was attacked on September 11, 2001.
The German government appeared to be surprised by the announcement that the US troops would be leaving. Peter Beyer, the coordinator of transatlantic cooperation for Chancellor Angela Merkel, told Reuters, “This is completely unacceptable, especially since nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called relations between the US and Germany “complicated.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee was less circumspect, saying in a statement quoted by the Washington Post, “It’s another favor to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and another leadership failure by this Administration that further strains relations with our allies.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee did not comment on the decision. No Republicans seem to have commented publicly on the move.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that he would “be working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see what can be done to reverse the decision.”
President Trump may be persuaded to reverse the decision. In the past, he has announced the withdrawal of Americans from Syria twice but then changed his mind. The most recent reversal came after a bloody offensive against America’s Kurdish allies by Turkish forces.
President Trump’s abrupt decision to draw down the US forces in Germany gives America’s allies yet another reason not to trust our commitment to their defense. With only 34,500 American soldiers in Germany, the cost is negligible for the US, but the American presence is an important deterrent to Vladimir Putin. The cost of maintaining a force in Germany could well be a case of pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later.