The top Republican on the Armed Services Committee blamed “a couple of White House staffers” who “hadn’t thought through the consequences.”
Frustrated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized President Donald Trump’s controversial withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany, and hammered the Defense Department for failing to adequately explain to Congress the decision-making process behind a move described by officials as a “major strategic shift.”
Acting Defense Undersecretary for Policy James Anderson repeatedly told lawmakers that he was unable to answer detailed questions about the withdrawal, both because he was not involved in the initial decision-making process and because planning is ongoing and many decisions simply have not yet been made. Anderson insisted that the drawdown was grounded in a Pentagon policy determination that the United States needs more “flexibility” to counter Russian actions in Europe, and that cutting permanent troops in favor of fewer rotational forces achieves that goal.
But few lawmakers were satisfied by that explanation. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking member of the committee who is retiring at the end of this Congress, joined Democrats in describing the 12,000 figure as arbitrary. Although Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been conducting a bottom-up review of all of the U.S. combatant commands, Thornberry said, “What’s different is a couple of staffers in the White House decided that they wanted to try to sell the president on an absolute troop cap for Germany.”
“They clearly hadn’t thought through the consequences, they didn’t know how it would be implemented and so what’s happened is Secretary Esper and the folks at the Pentagon are trying to put lipstick on the pig or make lemons out of lemonade,” Thornberry said.
For months, Pentagon officials have struggled to reconcile the Defense Department’s claim that the cuts are the result of a strategic review designed to better counter Russia and China with Trump’s repeated public insistence that he ordered the drawdown to penalize Germany for not paying more of the costs of Europe’s defense and NATO’s budget. Critics have asked how cutting forces in Europe is supposed to help deter Russia.
"From a lay person's point of view, it looks like we've reduced our troop presence in Europe at a time that Russia is actually becoming more of a threat,” Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter Wednesday. "It looks like we're pulling back and I think that bothers a lot of us.”
Lawmakers also expressed concern over the decision to move the U.S. Africa Command headquarters out of Germany. Several lawmakers alluded to a small-member briefing that led them to believe that the only reason AFRICOM’s headquarters was being moved was to hit the 12,000 mark.
"I don't have those details, but I'm confident that we will find operational efficiencies,” Anderson said, when asked to provide a cost-benefit analysis for the move.
Committee chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., blistered the Pentagon for sending Anderson to the Hill without more detailed answers.
"For the Pentagon to send this over on a decision of this level?” said Smith, clearly annoyed. “The level of detail that we're getting here is just not acceptable.”
Other lawmakers were even more blunt. When Anderson was unable to answer whether the cuts originated in the Pentagon or the White House, Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., snapped: “Then why are you here?”
Trump first announced the cuts in June, telling reporters that he was penalizing Germany for being “delinquent.” Then, for almost a full week, defense officials were silent on the details of the plan — or even whether they had presented options to the president. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien eventually penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that cast the decision as part of a strategic effort to retool U.S. deployments to be more “forward and expeditionary” in order to counter China and Russia.
But it wasn’t until July that Esper provided more concrete details, announcing that the U.S. force in Germany would shrink by one-third, from roughly 36,000 to 24,000 troops. About 5,600 are expected to be repositioned within NATO countries, and “many” of the 6,400 who will return to the United States will begin conducting rotational deployments back to Europe, including potentially into Poland and the vulnerable Baltic states, Pentagon leaders said at the time.
Anderson and Esper have both said the repositioning plan was already in the works, but was “accelerated” when Trump insisted on the German troop cuts in June — an announcement that caught international allies by surprise and drew stiff opposition on Capitol Hill. The House version of the annual policy bill currently being negotiated between the two chambers includes a provision that would prevent troop cuts from Germany unless the defense secretary certifies to Congress that it is in the U.S. national interest — a provision that Thornberry hinted on Wednesday that lawmakers may push more forcefully during conference negotiations with the Senate.
“There may be some benefit to some of these movies. My concern is the underlying strength and unity of the alliance has not been a foremost consideration,” Thornberry said. “All of that plus the status of the decision making has to inform our conference negotiations with the Senate this year, and in years to come.”