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US troop withdrawal from Germany 'gift to Kremlin'

Ines Pohl Washington
July 29, 2020

Former US commander in Europe Lieutenant General Ben Hodges has slammed President Donald Trump's plan to withdraw troops from Germany. In a DW interview, he says it will hurt diplomatic ties and US Army capability.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump sit next to each other at a joint NATO press conference
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Vucci

On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced plans to withdraw approximately 11,800 American military personnel from bases in Germany. Around 5,400 troops will be sent to other European countries, while over 6,000 will return home.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is a retired US Army officer who commanded the United States Army Europe from November 2014 to December 2017. After leaving the military, he became the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Washington, D.C..

He spoke to DW's Washington Bureau Chief, Ines Pohl, about the damage the troop withdrawals will do to US-German relations and US military readiness in Europe. 

DW: What does the withdrawal mean for the safety of the United States?

Hodges: It hurts us because it further damages the relationship with our most important ally. And it's more in the way that this has been done as suppose to the specifics. The timeline for something like this would normally would take years.

It takes a long time for those things to actually happen — if they do at all. But the damage to the relationship is done. And for me that's the most unfortunate part.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges wearing an Army uniform
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges says the damage has already been done to US-Germany relations, even if the troop withdrawals don't go aheadImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Wagner

Germany is our most important ally in Europe. It gives us a platform for carrying out our own national security strategy in Africa, in Europe and in Eurasia. It's the ally that we need to cooperate with the most. The administration is going about this in a way that undermines trust.

From a military standpoint, is it necessary to have so many troops in Germany?

We have very few troops in Germany. 35,000 is not even half of the size of the stadium where Bayern Munich plays football. Most of them are people who work in headquarters or logistics or air defense or communications. It's just not that many people.

So the troops are not needed from a military standpoint?

The withdrawal removes capabilities that are in Germany and help the United States. The troops are not there to guard Germany, they are stationed there for us. Germany is a platform that allows us to do rapid reinforcement in Eastern Europe, for example, as well as other places.

That's why the relationship with Germany is so important. And if you start moving capability away from Germany, where we have such good infrastructure, it will be difficult to maintain the same level of readiness. If you're going to move troops to Italy, for example, the infrastructure does not exist there. They're going to have to spend billions of dollars to expand the barracks.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney and others call this a gift to Russia. Would you agree on that?

This is a complete gift to the Kremlin. A 30% reduction of US capability in Germany, disruption and further damage to our most important relationship and the Russians did not one single thing to earn this.

I mean, they are as aggressive as ever in the Black Sea, they continue to occupy Crimea, they are killing Ukrainians every week. They did nothing to merit a reduction of US capability in Europe.

So why is President Trump doing this?

I can only speculate. I always believed that this is a political decision not based on any strategic analysis.

He justifies this move with Germany not paying enough into the NATO budget.

I believe that this is his principle motivation. Of course, almost everybody agrees that Germany should be spending more on its own defense. Every president has that.

But the decision of the president to reduce what we have in Germany by almost one-third is based on his frustration that it does not spend 2% of its GDP on defense.

Ironically, Italy and Belgium are well below 2% also, and they are now in line to receive troops. So there is no consistency in this decision.

It's less than 100 days until election day. How much will President Trump be able to really do until then?

Well, from what we heard today, some movement will start within weeks. None of the really substantial pieces will be able to be moved for months.

President Trump just announced that he wants to send retired US Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor as the US ambassador to Germany. How does this fit into the picture?

He is completely in the same camp as former Ambassador Richard Grenell and the White House in terms of reduction of military capability in Germany. Obviously, the White House would not pick somebody who would not carry out the same policy.

It is unfortunate that for our most important ally we do not select an ambassador who is well-known and well recognized, in the way that Germany sends [former State Secretary] Emily Haber to Washington. We should be looking for one of our most distinguished and best diplomats to ensure a relationship with our most important ally.

US troop withdrawal 'a gift to the Kremlin' – retired US General Ben Hodges speaks to DW

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl