MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Last month, President Trump made a surprise announcement about the longstanding U.S. military presence in Europe. Here he is talking about the decision last week.
TRUMP: We’re going to be reducing Germany very substantially, down to about 25,000 troops. We actually have 52,000, but we’ll be moving it down to about 25,000. Germany’s paying a very small fraction of what they’re supposed to be paying. They should be paying 2 percent and they’re paying a little bit more than 1 percent, depending on how you calculate. You could also calculate that they’re paying less than 1 percent.
But if you assume they’re paying 1 percent, that’s a tremendous delinquency. Let’s use that word. Delinquency. So, we’re going to be reducing our forces in Germany. Some will be coming home. Some will be going to other places. But Poland would be one of those places. Other places in Europe.
REICHARD: The mention of Poland wasn’t coincidental. President Trump made the comments during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda—the first foreign leader to visit Washington since the coronavirus lockdown began in March.
EICHER: The president’s announcement rattled some NATO allies. Late last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper traveled to Belgium to meet with NATO’s Secretary General. According to a Pentagon statement after the meeting, Esper reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and the importance of working together to address security challenges.
But that’s done little to calm fear in Europe, which views U.S. troops as the best protection against Russia.
Joining us now to talk about it is Will Inboden. He served at the State Department and the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He’s now executive director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.
Professor, thank you for your time today and good morning to you.
WILL INBODEN, GUEST: Good morning to you, Nick. Good to be with you.
EICHER: Let’s begin with the reasons we have U.S. troops in Germany in the first place. Our presence there started, as you know, after World War II. The reasons then were pretty obvious. But what about now? Why do we still have a military presence in Germany and elsewhere in Europe?
INBODEN: Well, a key thing to appreciate, Nick, is we have the troops there primarily for America’s benefit. They certainly benefit our allies as well, but they’re there because every president since [Dwight] Eisenhower has judged it in our national interest to have a presence there in Germany. It’s the nerve center for a lot of our force projection into Africa and the Middle East. It’s a jumping off point for that as well as a reception point for returning troops, especially the wounded ones.
It played a very important part in solidifying the political and intelligence aspects of our alliances throughout Europe on the continent. And it certainly serves as a bulwark against potential Russian aggression. President Reagan had a great line saying we keep troops over there so we don’t have to fight over here, referring to keeping our troops in Europe so we don’t have to fight on our home shores here in the United States.
EICHER: And we’ve heard that argument from President Bush in fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups better that the battlefield is overseas than here at home. But the president said he’s not planning a full-scale retreat; he plans to move some of the troops out of Germany into Poland, or possibly elsewhere in Europe. Isn’t there a benefit to that?
INBODEN: So, even though I’m overall quite critical of a lot of President Trump’s foreign policy, I want to be fair here and say that there is an argument to be made for bolstering the American troop presence in Poland. And there even can be an argument made for adjusting or drawing it down a bit in Germany.
My problem is the way that President Trump went about this. He did it without any consultation with our military leadership who by and large opposes this. He did it without any consultation with our German allies or other NATO allies. And he seems to have done it more out of a fit of petulance rather than any strategic rationale.
This announcement came right after German Chancellor Merkel said she wasn’t going to be coming to the U.S. for the G-7 Summit primarily because of the coronavirus. And so out of retribution, President Trump decides to do this pretty abrupt troop move. And so that’s the concern is that there’s not a strategic rationale for this.
And then, well, the good reason to put them into Poland would be it’s even closer to the Russian border. Poland would be a potential site—very vulnerable to Russian aggression. But he seems to be doing it more because of a clumsy effort to interfere in the Polish election process there, to bolster the Law and Justice Party who are his favorite ones by dangling the increase in U.S. troops there. So, it’s the reasons why and the way he’s gone about this that I think is very concerning.
EICHER: Still, let’s talk about the benefit of having American troops closer to the Russian border. The Russians say, of course, they don’t want that. What about the fallout with the Russisans?
INBODEN: So, well, it’s hard to predict, but, again, I will say if the United States is trying to cater to Russia’s whims, that’s our first mistake. OK? Every president since George H.W. Bush—Clinton, then Bush 43, who I worked for, then Obama, and now Trump—has tried to be deferential to Russian desires, and we’ve largely gotten hostility from Russia instead.
Most recently these awful and seems to be verified reports about Russian intelligence paying bounties to the Taliban to kill Americans. So, I’m not much bothered. I’m almost of a mind of Putin doesn’t like it, it probably is a good move, OK? That said, you don’t want to make any gestures if you don’t have a strategic rationale for it and the credibility to back it up.
But let’s remember this. Let’s take a step back. Putin sees America’s allies as a source of our strength. And one of his strategic goals is to do whatever he can to destruct our alliances. And so the fact that he is applauding pulling our troops away from Germany in the way that we’ve done it to humiliate Chancellor Merkel does play right into Putin’s hands. So we need to—that should tell us something about the way it’s done was not a good idea.
EICHER: Of course, Chancellor Merkel hasn’t been altogether cooperative. Late last year she said that Germany would increase its defense spending to 2 percent by the early decade of the 2030s. Do you think that with the president’s action that perhaps Germany might speed up the timeline?
INBODEN: It’s hard to predict. And, first, I want to say that every U.S. president since Eisenhower has also been frustrated at West Germany, now Germany, for not paying for its own defense. So this is a legitimate, long-standing American concern.
But the way to get Germany to pay more for its defense is not to jerk them around like this, not to disrespect them, not to fail to consult with them, not to try to blackmail them. And this will play right into the hands of the left-wing in Germany that doesn’t want American troops there anyway and would rather be pivoting closer to Russia. So, yeah, if our goal is to get Germany to contribute more to its defense budget, which is a goal I share, this is not the right way to go about it.
I think an interesting contrast is with, again, the way President Reagan handled his relations with allies is when Reagan comes into office, he valued our allies. He made a priority of increasing the American defense budget and then once we started doing that, he went quietly—not publicly to humiliate them—but quietly to allies like West Germany, like the United Kingdom, like Japan and said, hey, we’re anteing up on our side. The United States is doing more and we need you to do more as well. And his counterparts, those allies responded and they increased their defense budgets pretty dramatically. So, that’s how you do it. That’s how you get allies to chip in more.
EICHER: Will, before I let you go, let’s jump quickly to the Middle East. Do you think this change in direction will have any effect on our interests in the Middle East?
INBODEN: Potentially. The first is, like I said, our bases in Germany are the jumping off points for a lot of our presence in the Middle East in so far as we are drawing down those capabilities in Germany. And they can’t all just naturally be transferred to Poland. I mean, these are decades of infrastructure, of systems, of interoperability and so on and so forth. But going back to how does this look from Moscow, remember Putin’s geopolitical goal is to separate the United States from Europe, disrupt us with our allies there, and push the United States out of the Middle East and make Russia the dominant outside power in the Middle East. That’s why he did his aggressive play in Syria, among others.
And so, yeah, I think that this is of a piece with reduced American influence in the Middle East as well. And we were due for a recalibration there. I’m not saying that the last 20 years of American Middle East policy are an unmitigated success by any means. But as I often say, policymaking is the art of choosing from a bad set of options, and I worry that we’re going from bad options now in the Middle East to worse.
EICHER: Will Inboden is a former member of the George W. Bush administration and now heads the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor, thanks for joining us today.
INBODEN: Thank you, Nick. I enjoyed it.