US assessing cost of keeping troops in Germany as Trump battles with Europe

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The Pentagon is analyzing the cost and impact of a large-scale withdrawal or transfer of American troops stationed in Germany, amid growing tensions between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to people familiar with the work.

The effort follows Trump’s expression of interest in removing the troops, made during a meeting earlier this year with White House and military aides, U.S. officials said. Trump was said to have been taken aback by the size of the U.S. presence, which includes about 35,000 active-duty troops, and complained that other countries were not contributing fairly to joint security or paying enough to NATO.

Word of the assessment has alarmed European officials, who are scrambling to determine whether Trump actually intends to reposition U.S. forces or whether it is merely a negotiating tactic ahead of a NATO summit in Brussels, where Trump is again likely to criticize U.S. allies for what he deems insufficient defense spending.

U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on the unpublicized effort, emphasized that the exercise is limited to an internal exploration of options. The top military brass is not involved as yet, and the Pentagon has not been tasked with figuring out how to execute any option.

Basing its statistics on data from 2002, the study estimated that Germany offset about 33 percent of the costs of U.S. military personnel stationed there. It is unclear how much would be saved by bringing them all home, because the United States would still be responsible for paying them, in addition to housing and other personnel expenses. At the same time, a large portion of the American troops in Germany is engaged in the U.S. military’s efforts outside Europe and simply bases operations in the nation.

The U.S. military had been drawing down its presence in Europe for years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in early 2014 prompted a change in posture, with Washington seeking to deter Moscow from further encroachments. U.S. and allied forces began rotating brigades through the eastern members, and the U.S. started returning equipment such as tanks and helicopters to the theater.

Trump’s disdain for the alliance – which he declared “obsolete” during his presidential campaign – has clearly been focused on Germany, and on Merkel in particular, including recent tweets saying she was losing her grip on power at home.

Bolton’s meeting with von der Leyen, and his emphasis on the bottom line, came more than a year after Trump tweeted in March 2017 that Germany owes “vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has also ruffled feathers, telling a conservative news outlet this month he wants to “empower” the European right – a remark that some European governments view as threatening.

Senior House Democrats endorsed a letter this week penned by Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fire Grenell. A State Department official confirmed receipt of the letter but did not comment on its contents.

As Trump has railed against NATO – describing it at this month’s Group of 7 summit in Canada as “worse than NAFTA,” the trilateral trade agreement he has also denounced – allies have been comforted by support from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and to some extent from Pompeo.

In a Senate hearing on the State Department budget Wednesday, Pompeo spoke of “strong, united Atlantic unity,” even as “we have pushed them to increase their willingness to support NATO forces.”

Adding to the confusion of the overall U.S. message at a time when Trump is promoting better relations with Russia, Pompeo said the administration was pressuring the Europeans to maintain sanctions against Moscow, imposed over the Crimea annexation.

“It is time for them to care as much about pushing back against Russia as we do” and “convince them that the sanction regime is important to achieving outcomes that are in the best interest of Europe,” Pompeo said.

While Trump has mused about why the alliance continues to ostracize Russia over Crimea and floated the suggestion that Russia be readmitted into the G-7, Pompeo reiterated that “we reject” Russian occupation of Crimea and Georgia and that the administration recognizes the threat Moscow poses to Eastern Europe.

The United States under Trump, he noted, had increased its funding for NATO forces rotating in the Baltic states and Poland. “I think this administration has been unambiguously tough on Russia,” Pompeo said. “I think that is indisputable.”

The Pentagon analysis of basing in Europe comes as relations between Trump and Europe have plunged over his decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, sparking tit-for-tat measures, and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, a pact viewed in Europe as a model for peaceful conflict resolution. The president’s decision to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16 also adds a new twist to his trip to Europe, which includes a stop in London.

However, beneath statements about NATO’s unity and indispensability – and the alarm over Trump – the alliance is arguably undergoing a tectonic shift, and Trump may be as much its manifestation as its cause. Having lost its initial reason for being with the end of the Cold War, it found new justifications for existence during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, followed by a focus on Afghanistan and counterterrorism. The resurgence of Russia as a threatening force in Europe recently has endowed the alliance with renewed purpose.

But the question of where the Western defense pact fits into a 21st century in which Europeans disagree among themselves, as well as with the United States, on economic, trade and immigration issues, and in which the world is undergoing a basic realignment with the rise of Asia, has led some to consider a new arrangement.

The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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