On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced plans to withdraw around 11,800 American military personnel from bases in Germany. Around 5,400 troops will be sent to other European countries, while more than 6,000 will return.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is a retired US Army officer who led the European United States Army from November 2014 to December 2017. After leaving the military, he became Chair of Pershing in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Washington, DC.
He spoke with the Washington DW Bureau Chief, Ines Pohl, about the damage done by troop withdrawals to US-German relations and US military readiness in Europe.
DW: What does withdrawal mean for the safety of the United States?
Hodges: It hurts us because it further damages relationships with our most important allies. And it’s more in the way that this is done according to specifications. The timeline for things like this will usually take years.
It takes a long time for those things to really happen – if they do at all. But the damage to the relationship was done. And for me that is the most unfortunate part.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said damage had occurred to US-German relations, even if the withdrawal of troops was not continued
Germany is our most important ally in Europe. This gives us a platform to implement our own national security strategies in Africa, in Europe and in Eurasia. That is the ally that we need most to work together. The administration is doing this in a way that damages trust.
From a military point of view, is it necessary to have so many troops in Germany?
We have very few troops in Germany. 35,000 is not even half the size of the stadium where Bayern Munich plays soccer. Most of them are people who work in headquarters or logistics or air defense or communication. It’s just not many people.
So troops are not needed from a military point of view?
Withdrawal removes capabilities that exist in Germany and helps the United States. The troops were not there to guard the Germans, they were stationed there for us. Germany is a platform that allows us to carry out rapid strengthening in Eastern Europe, for example, as well as other places.
That’s why relations with Germany are very important. And if you start distancing capabilities from Germany, where we have good infrastructure, it will be difficult to maintain the same level of readiness. If you are moving troops to Italy, for example, the infrastructure is not there. They have to spend billions of dollars expanding barracks.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney and others call this a gift to Russia. Do you agree with that?
This is a complete gift for the Kremlin. A 30% reduction in US capability in Germany, further disruption and damage to our most important relations and Russia has not produced this.
I mean, they are as aggressive as in the Black Sea, they continue to occupy Crimea, they kill Ukraine every week. They did nothing to get a reduction in US capability in Europe.
So why did President Trump do this?
I can only speculate. I always believe that this is a political decision that is not based on any strategic analysis.
He confirmed this step by Germany not paying enough into the NATO budget.
I believe that this is the principle motivation. Of course, almost everyone agrees that Germany must spend more on its own defense. Every president has it.
But the president’s decision to reduce what we have in Germany is almost a third based on his frustration that he does not spend 2% of GDP on defense.
Ironically, Italy and Belgium are also well below 2%, and they are now in line to receive troops. So there is no consistency in this decision.
Less than 100 days until election day. How much can President Trump really do until then?
Now, from what we hear today, some movements will begin in a few weeks. There is no really substantial part that can be moved for months.
President Trump has just announced that he wants to send retired US Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor as US ambassador to Germany. How does this fit into the picture?
He was entirely in the same camp as former Ambassador Richard Grenell and the White House in terms of reducing military capabilities in Germany. Clearly, the White House will not choose someone who will not run the same policy.
It is unfortunate that for our most important ally, we did not elect a well-known and well-known ambassador, as Germany did. [former State Secretary] Emily Haber to Washington. We must look for one of our most prominent and best diplomats to ensure relations with our most important allies.