From “colossal mistake” to “pure idiocy,” former senior U.S. military commanders on Friday slammed a White House proposal that reportedly would require treaty allies like Germany and Japan to pay up to 150 percent of the cost of hosting large numbers of American troops on bases in their countries.
It’s the latest and perhaps most extreme example of President Trump’s campaign promise to make the price of America’s security a key bargaining chip with countries like Japan, South Korea, and NATO allies. It’s also the latest example of the president’s more direct and emboldened leadership on military-related issues since his sudden and unilateral December decision to pull troops from Syria. The combination of those two factors means Trump’s unabashedly undiplomatic dealmaking style will test U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Europe relations — and U.S. military leaders’ resolve to stay out of politics and obey their commander in chief — even further. And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: global security costs will be a top issue for the rest of this term.
It’s become exhausting to say once again that this president is challenging the international system and the assumptions of its keepers. Sometimes he has, sometimes he really has not. But this is a ground shifting proposal that truly would upend the international order of the past century. Some of Trump’s critics worried in fear last year that his squeezing of NATO members to pay 2 percent GDP was going to rip the alliance apart. It did not. But holding allied nations’ collective security (meaning: U.S. security) hostage for ransom, by demanding “premium” kickbacks, would test more than NATO’s resolve. And it comes one month shy of NATO’s 70th anniversary events, which are being hosted in Washington, DC.
If you support what Trump’s doing, then this is a clever attempt to bargain down Europe and Japan and make good on a campaign promise. It could get friendly nations to start paying a little more for their own defense (see: South Korea and NATO), which some believe is long overdue and what Democrats and Republicans alike have been wanting for years, if not as urgently as Trump. It also could shift some burden of global security off of the U.S. military, which remains an all-volunteer force of Americans isolated in a bubble and who critics increasingly argue cannot meet the security demands policy makers keep giving them. But shifting away the burden may also come at the cost of abdicating influence and leadership. That’s the other concern that has become almost cliche, that Trump’s in-your-eye ways will drive allies from Washington and inward, toward their own regional collectives or, worse, U.S. rivals adversaries.
Trump has focused on the military’s bottom line since before he was elected, when he quipped Japan and South Korea should retain their own nuclear weapons. As president, he consistently urges NATO members to meet their pledge to spend 2 percent of their GDPs on defense spending — which he erroneously calls NATO “dues” — even threatening or suggesting at times the U.S. may not fulfill it’s Article 5 obligation to defend NATO members who don’t pay up. And this week administration officials signed a new deal with South Korea increasing their reimbursement for the American troop presence there by 8 percent this year.
But the administration’s “cost plus 50” plan, first reported by Bloomberg, is an entirely different level of pressure that some critics liken to a protection racket and extortion.
“Yes…I’m very concerned about this,” said Ben Hodges, a retired 3-star general who was the most recent commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, in an email to Defense One. “It shows either a complete lack of understanding or a complete disregard for the value of the access we get from having bases in Europe … which are essential to our own security and for why we have any troops or capabilities that are stationed overseas. You can’t defend America from Virginia, North Carolina, and California.”
The U.S. military’s command headquarters for Europe and Africa, based in Stuttgart, “are not there to protect Germany,” said Hodges, who is Pershing Chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and partner at Berlin Global Advisors. They are forward deployed headquarters “that are essential for our own security. Where would we be without Ramstein AFB or Incirlik AFB? Or the Navy bases in the Med? Or the ability to deploy troops rapidly to trouble spots in Europe, the Middle East or Africa?”
“The U.S. does not have the capacity by ourselves to do everything we need to do to ensure our own security and the security of critical spaces and assets…we need allies…and our most reliable allies come from Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and ROK. Why do we constantly bash them?”
Mark Hertling, also a retired 3-star Army general who held the same Europe command post as Hodges, said in a tweet, “It’s pure idiocy. Only the uninformed would support this.”
President Obama’s former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said, “Trump’s ridiculous demand to treat our European bases as a protection racket could, when refused, be the basis for him to do what he longs to do — pull the US out of NATO.”
“Hard to imagine a more self-defeating step or one more at odds with American values,” said Gordon Trowbridge, a former spokesman for the Pentagon and Sen. Carl Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee. “We should deploy troops for one reason: Because it helps keep America safe. The US military is not a protection racket.”
Julie Smith, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said, “A horrible idea sure to backfire and leave America less safe, less trusted, and with less global reach. The US military doesn’t station troops overseas out of the goodness of their hearts. It does so because it serves America’s interests.”
It’s unclear just how serious this proposal is, and the White House publicly will not discuss this one. But given the president’s moves against NATO and South Korea already, it sure feels like a trial balloon.
“Getting allies to increase their investment in our collective defense and ensure fairer burden-sharing has been a long-standing U.S. goal,” said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis. “The administration has prioritized this issue: for example the president has pushed NATO allies to meet the Alliance’s 2 percent of GDP on defense spending guideline, which is resulting in a total of $100 billion in new defense spending. The administration is committed to getting the best deal for the American people elsewhere too, but will not comment on any ongoing deliberations regarding specific ideas.”
At the Pentagon, Friday morning, reporters peppered spokesman Charlie Summers.
“I know that the NSC has something on that,” he said. “Those are classified conversations and I can’t get into that.”
Katie Bo Williams contributed to this report.