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Trump faces Republican revolt over order to withdraw troops from Germany

Move would weaken Nato and work to Vladimir Putin’s benefit, say critics

James Hohmann
Wednesday 24 June 2020 13:55 BST
Trump suggests US should treat Germany as an enemy because of World War II

Six Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday asked Donald Trump to reconsider his order to dramatically reduce the American troop presence in Germany, warning that following through will “place US national security at risk” and embolden Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“This is not the time to take any action that might cause the Putin regime to question the credibility of the Nato deterrent or might lead our Nato allies and partners to doubt the US commitment to our collective security,” they wrote.

The letter, obtained by The Washington Post, was led by Michael McCaul, a Texas representative and the top Republican on the committee, and Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois representative and the top Republican on the European affairs subcommittee and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. Republican representatives Ann Wagner of Missouri, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and John Curtis of Utah also signed.

Hawks in both chambers of Congress have tried to get Mr Trump to retreat from what many privately see as a repudiation of the hallmark of Republican foreign policy since the Second World War, a betrayal of the transatlantic alliance and another strategic gift for Mr Putin. It comes on the publication day of Mr Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, which depicts a president friendly towards the Kremlin but wobbly towards western European allies.

Congressional Republicans may be distancing themselves from Mr Trump as the November election nears, particularly if his standing does not markedly improve. Recent polls, nationally and in battleground states, have shown Mr Trump losing support. GOP strategists privately fear that the president’s current standing imperils their Senate majority and makes winning back the House next to impossible.

Mr Trump approved a plan this month to permanently withdraw up to one-third of about 34,500 US troops based in Germany, bringing the total down to no more than 25,000. Defence Department officials are working on a plan to implement the directive, which was signed by national security adviser Robert O’Brien. The Germans have still not been officially notified.

Leading congressional Democrats are as upset, and vocal, as their GOP counterparts. House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel, who was trying to fend off a strong primary challenge on Tuesday, said in a statement that he is working with his colleagues “on both sides of the aisle” to see what they can do legislatively “to reverse the decision”. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called Mr Trump’s order “petty and preposterous”, as well as “another favour to Putin”.

Congressional aides in both major political parties speculate that there will be an effort to insert language into the defence reauthorisation bill to make it harder to move troops away from Germany.

The move to pull troops from Germany had been under consideration in the administration for months, pushed hardest internally by the former ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, according to administration sources, but Mr Trump made the announcement this month partly out of pique after chancellor Angela Merkel declined to attend an in-person G7 summit Mr Trump wanted to hold in Washington this month.

Ms Merkel raised public health concerns about all the world leaders gathering amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of US infections so high, forcing the cancellation of the meeting and undercutting Mr Trump’s narrative that the country is ready to “reopen”.

Mr Trump’s public rationale for pulling out troops is that Germany has been “delinquent” in defence spending. The Republican signatories on the Foreign Affairs letter commend Mr Trump for pushing Nato members to spend more on their defence, and they say Germany ought to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of its gross domestic product, up from 1.3 per cent last year.

“However, we fear this partial US withdrawal from Germany will fail to convince Berlin to spend more, while putting US strategic interests at risk,” they wrote. “Our adversaries understand that the American alliance network is at the heart of the US comparative advantage and will seek to exploit any cracks in transatlantic ties. Therefore, we are troubled that many of our allies had not been consulted on US force re-posturing.

“To ensure that free and open societies triumph over the likes of Vladimir Putin’s regime and the Chinese Communist Party, the United States must continue to build and maintain a united coalition of like-minded allies. The withdrawal of thousands of troops from Germany will only complicate this crucial effort and in turn place US national security at risk.”

Conservatives explain that the point of the American presence has never been primarily about protecting Germany. It has always been about advancing American interests and projecting US power. For 75 years, there has been a bipartisan Washington consensus that a large troop presence there was beneficial.

The US Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany cares for American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stuttgart, Germany, is home to US Africa Command, which focuses not just on counterterrorism but on checking Russian and Chinese expansionism on that continent.

This new plea follows a letter to Mr Trump from 22 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, led by ranking member Mac Thornberry of Texas. “We believe that such steps would significantly damage US national security as well as strengthen the position of Russia to our detriment,” they wrote. “In Europe, the threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened US commitment to Nato will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism.”

Republican senator James Inhofe, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said pulling US troops out of Germany is such a terrible idea that he cannot believe Mr Trump would go through with it. He has blamed Mr O’Brien for it and also complained that he was not alerted in advance. Trump “has a passionate love for our troops and he would not do anything that would impose an unbearable hardship on our troops,” Mr Inhofe told Politico.

The highest-ranking House GOP member to publicly chastise Mr Trump’s move as “a serious error” is Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the number-three House Republican and a hawk in the tradition of her father, former vice president Dick Cheney. “Withdrawing our forces and abandoning our allies would have grave consequences, emboldening our adversaries and making war more – not less – likely,” Ms Cheney said in a statement after signing onto the Thornberry letter.

The Washington Post

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