Even amid national crisis and deep polarization, there remains one bipartisan establishment pledge: that the US military presence abroad must continue — forever.
Witness the reaction to President Trump’s recent decision to redeploy nearly 12,000 troops away from Germany. “A serious error,” warned GOP Rep. Liz Cheney. Sen. Mitt Romney had a hawkish fit. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen alleged that only the Kremlin would cheer such a move.
She apparently hasn’t examined polls showing a plurality of Germans want the troops gone — and, more tellingly, that the vast majority, nearly 80 percent in some surveys, would prefer Berlin to stay neutral or even side with Russia in a hypothetical US-Russian conflict.
For the permanent-war contingent in Washington, however, America can never, ever militarily disengage from anywhere in the world — never mind popular preferences (at home and abroad), the state of our economy or changing global realities: not least that retired German politicos magnetically gravitate to the boards of Russian energy firms like children to ice cream.
Trump gets this. One bright spot of his administration has been the absence of new foreign conflicts that turn into interminable quagmires. That’s been no easy task, considering the militaristic impulses of his predecessors and career national-security staff, who keep a decidedly interventionist thumb on the scales of policy.
Germany tells the story. Keeping troops in Germany is critical to defend against Russian aggrandizement and protect US national security, we are told. All old hat when one recalls that the 2004 decision by the Bush administration to reduce troop numbers in Germany was met with the same resistance.
Americans are supposed to defend Germany from Russian aggression in perpetuity. Yet Germany has no compunction about tying its energy security to Moscow via the Nordstream 2 pipeline. The NATO alliance is of paramount importance, we are told, but not such that Germany will ever meet its 2 percent of GDP defense-spending obligation.
As the president astutely put it: “Germany pays Russia billions of dollars a year for energy, and we are supposed to protect Germany from Russia. What’s that all about?”
The Pentagon appears ready to slow-walk the German withdrawal process, hoping to kick the can past Election Day. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned that the removal of troops from Germany will cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. Men who don’t blink at dispatching US troops and hardware from the Midwest to Timbuktu suddenly worry about costs when it’s time to move our men and women in uniform in the opposite direction.
The establishment’s allergy to troop withdrawals isn’t just limited to Germany.
Of the few constants in Washington, one thing remains certain: Should talk of Mideast drawdowns attract too much of the president’s attention, there is always some pretext to keep boots on the ground. While regimes in the region cut deals among themselves and invite Russia and China in, we are told that American boots are absolutely essential to guaranteeing the security of . . . various Iranian and Saudi client states.
It’s all hardly surprising when one considers the millions of dollars flowing from the defense industry to dozens of influential Washington think tanks and politicians.
Skipping the line straight to the presidency has blessed Trump with the unique ability to avoid the decades of glad-handing and grooming by deep-pocketed defense interests; in interviews, he has acknowledged the influence of the military-industrial complex.
Yet as commander in chief, Trump ultimately acquiesces to troop increases after months of pressure from military advisers or while distracted by one Twitter feud or another, no doubt to the relief of the military-industrial “adults in the room.”
Most recently, Trump backed off demands for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan ahead of November, leaving at least 4,000 troops in the country past Election Day at the request of Pentagon officials and security apparats hoping a pliant team player like Joe Biden takes the reins.
Meanwhile, the home front is economically devastated and riven by social conflict. Trump’s election chances look grim, but one way to assert himself in a popular, winsome way is to press for expeditious withdrawals — while he still can.
Allan Richarz is a Tokyo-based writer.
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