As any former NATO commander will say, removing 12,000 troops from Germany makes no strategic sense. It misplaces our forces into countries further removed from the site of a potential military challenge. It hampers the training of our forces in Europe. And it affects the vital intangibles which have helped preserve the peace in Europe for 75 years: it sends a signal of American pull-back and a lack of resolve; it raises profound questions about American motives; it is a slap in the face to our German allies, the largest economic power in Europe, which has gracefully hosted millions of American service members and their families over the years. Perhaps most worrisome, at a time when our European and Baltic allies are increasingly concerned by an assertive Russia, and when Russia is breaking treaties and starting a nuclear arms race, it is a massive concession to Vladimir Putin. There is no compelling cost/benefit analysis that supports this move.
The Republican Party that once applauded as President Reagan called for Gorbachev "to tear down this wall" is now led by a man who subjugates himself – and America – to an authoritarian tsar. Vladimir Putin is not alone in running laps around our President. President Trump has proven himself disorganized, weak, or easily manipulated in almost every corner of the world. Self-described "national security Republicans" can pick American national security, or they can pick President Trump. They can't pick both.
Any viable national security strategy begins with national objectives. Informed by the best possible intelligence available, decisions should be made to further U.S. interests. Despite a clear, well-reasoned national security strategy, published in 2017, the Trump Administration has simply failed to demonstrate a coherent worldview or consistent actions that make strategic or even economic sense – from the Far East to Latin America, the Mideast and Europe, the Administration’s record is one of shooting from the hip. It is defined by poor planning, inconsistency, and irresolution. Ideas are floated before they are thought through. Some actions are inexplicable. U.S. orientation changes from friend to foe. American ideals are surrendered. Accomplishments are few and far between.
Let’s look at the record. In the Far East the Trump Administration raised the specter of conflict in Korea to stop Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons development. The world was frightened by President Trumps bellicose rhetoric, but the U.S. actually had no good military options. Even the President didn’t want war. What followed the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul was a North Korean “peace offensive’ which drew the President into personal diplomacy with the North Korean leader. Yet in the last three years, North Korea has moved towards its nuclear ambitions without restraint. The personal diplomacy has placed enormous domestic political pressure on South Korean President Moon Jae-in and restrained our military exercises, but for precious few gains. President Trump was played – and, if he had adequately prepared himself, he would have known this was the likely outcome and pursued a more fruitful, or at least less destructive, course.
With respect to China, President Trump used personal diplomacy to seek a warm relationship, even praising Chinese repression of its own Uighur population, only to confront the reality of Chinese technology theft and increasing assertiveness. The U.S. placed billions of dollars in sanctions on China, which were ultimately paid by U.S. consumers, lost other billions in agricultural sales to China, and ultimately has found no resolution on the trade issue. China is building up its military capabilities, and no longer promises a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue. He inherited a rising China and, through lack of a coherent strategy, severely weakened our position.
In Afghanistan, no agreement has been finalized with the Taliban, despite announcements, postponed visits, and considerable efforts by President Trump to have something to show for his 2020 re-election campaign. U.S. soldiers there are apparently under special threat due to a “bounty” placed on them by Russian intelligence. President Trump first denied knowing about it, and then has failed to bring it up to President Putin. Again, President Trump’s personal weaknesses – in this case, kowtowing to President Putin and the inability to choose when he speaks – left the situation no better than when he arrived.
In Latin America, the President swung into hostile rhetoric against Venezuelan leader Maduro; there were hints from the White House of military action; leaders throughout the region were alarmed. But there were no viable military options, and, in fact, nothing has been accomplished.
In the Mideast, President Trump’s phone call in December of 2018 with Turkish President Erdogan resulted in his abrupt, uncoordinated decision to withdraw US forces from Syria and end support of our Kurdish allies. This gutted the increasingly successful campaign to eliminate ISIS as a threat, and left the Kurds reeling from our betrayal. The US Secretary of Defense resigned. Ultimately the Administration partially reversed course, leaving some capabilities to at least contain ISIS in northeast Syria. In the region, we lost credibility as an ally. We are a long way from Reagan’s exhortation that we must “stand by our allies.”
Then there is the European theater, which remains near and dear to me, and where President Trump’s personal vanity and lack of preparation have led to policies that emboldened America’s enemies and left our Allies wondering if they can trust us. The announcement of the planned withdrawal of 12,00 US troops is simply the latest misstep. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty – which was working as a confidence-building measure – was mystifying. From his earlier refusals to affirm Article V to his determination to punish economically some of our closest allies, his policies are by turns dangerous and dumbfounding.
This is no laughing matter. Lest we forget, American Forces in Germany, and indeed in Europe, serve a purpose. They keep our security perimeter away from our homeland. The American dead from World Wars I and II buried in military cemeteries bear silent testimony to the cost to be paid when things go wrong in Europe, and when the United States fails to lead in the world. Thanks to the personal failings of President Trump, we are failing to lead.
In the interest of balance, the Trump Administration has had some success. The UAE’s recognition of Israel is a step in the right direction, maybe we will be able to withdraw some forces from Afghanistan, and we have not yet gone into another major war. Still, the sheer weight of the Trump Administration’s unforced errors and his persistent efforts to reduce America’s leadership and influence in the world overwhelms these minor accomplishments.
I learned national security from a master -- General Alexander M Haig, Jr, with whom I was privileged to work while he was Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He helped create the basic prism through which national security Republicans see the world -- be clear-eyed about who is a friend and who is a foe; understand the value and the limits of American power; respect and work with Allies, and above all, create and maintain America’s credibility as a consistent, strong, and reliable force for good in world affairs. President Trump neither has nor embodies those traits and does not see the world the same way national security Republicans do. National security Republicans cannot consider President Trump one of their own. They can vote for American national security, or they can vote for President Trump. They cannot vote for both.
Gen. Wesley Clark is the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe.