Trump’s Worst 2 Military Mistakes for Biden to Fix
Some policies may be worth keeping, but Trump’s handling of allies and withdrawals from conflict zones are not among them.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Last week, the Biden administration announced a suspension of former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, pending a comprehensive review of U.S. military positioning around the globe. It was a welcome move that provides Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with the opportunity to scrutinize a broad range of the Trump administration’s defense policies and determine which to keep and which to discard. Two leading candidates for disposal are already clear: Trump’s transactional approach toward long-standing allies such as Germany and his withdrawals of U.S. forces from conflict zones based on strict timelines.
As we all know by now, Trump habitually treated U.S. allies and partners as burdens to be jettisoned, rather than recognizing alliances as crucial national security assets to be nurtured. Beijing and Moscow can only dream of having a global network of capable allies like that of the United States.
Yet Trump confused allies such as Germany and South Korea with recipients of charity, refusing to appreciate the enormous benefits of having U.S. forces deployed in those countries. North Korea, for example, has nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula play a vital role in deterring an attack by Pyongyang on the U.S. homeland. In addition to expressing the desire to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, Trump made an unforced error by pushing a counterproductive approach to cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul that created unnecessary tension, which Beijing and Pyongyang certainly relished.
Trump’s approach to Europe was similarly shortsighted. Washington wisely retained U.S. forces in Europe in the aftermath of World War II and established NATO in 1949. After more than 70 years, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia has ever invaded a NATO member state—even as Russia invaded non-NATO countries such as Ukraine and Georgia in recent years. The reason is deterrence: The presence of U.S. combat forces in Europe makes it clear to Moscow that the United States and its NATO allies have the political unity and military capability to honor their commitment under NATO’s Article 5 to jointly defend against any attack.
What’s more, the presence of U.S. forces in Germany—which hosts the best military training facilities and logistics infrastructure in Europe—helps the Pentagon support its military operations in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East.
So it was a clear case of cutting off your nose to spite your face when Trump, out of a desire to punish Berlin for not spending enough on defense, initiated a plan to move thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany. And where did Trump want to send many of those forces? To Belgium and Italy, countries that spend even less than Germany on defense.
The announcement by the Biden White House wisely halts the ill-advised withdrawal from Germany. But Austin should not stop there. He should also examine Trump’s withdrawals from conflict zones predicated on the mistaken impression that the United States can ignore persistent terrorist threats and safely conduct withdrawals according to arbitrary timelines set in Washington.
In Syria, Trump expressed a desire to withdraw a small number of U.S. military forces working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. The SDF is estimated to have suffered more than 11,000 combat deaths. Without the SDF, the caliphate would either still exist or U.S. forces would have made those sacrifices instead. Yet in October 2019, Trump broke faith with the SDF and reduced pressure on the Islamic State when he pulled back forces from the Syrian-Turkish border and allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to conduct an incursion into Syria.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces work with partners to suppress terrorists who might launch another 9/11-style attack. U.S. forces also support Afghans trying to prevent the establishment of another Islamic State-type regime—this time next to nuclear-armed Pakistan. In Iraq, as well, U.S. forces seek to help Baghdad prevent the return of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
Yet on Nov. 17, 2020, ignoring the conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Trump administration announced that it would hastily slash the U.S. military presence in the two countries by mid-January. A mere five days before Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s acting defense secretary confirmed that the drawdown to a mere 2,500 troops in each country had taken place as ordered. Even before Trump’s withdrawals, the U.S. military presence in both countries was dramatically down from a peak of more than 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007 and approximately 100,000 in Afghanistan in 2011. Whether the small number of troops left is enough to complete vital missions is uncertain at best.
The Biden administration, to its credit, appears willing to pause a further timeline-based withdrawal in Afghanistan and assess conditions on the ground. In refreshingly candid comments, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby noted that the Taliban had not met their “commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces.” Similarly, the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group released a report on Feb. 3 cautioning against a precipitous withdrawal that ignores conditions in the country.
Reversing the Trump administration’s haranguing of South Korea and abandoning its foolish military withdrawal from Germany will be the easy part for the Biden team. We will see if the new administration has the wisdom to resist calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. military contingents remaining in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria based on arbitrary calendar dates instead of security needs and conditions on the ground.
Around the world, U.S. allies and partners seek to deter authoritarian aggressors and defeat terrorists looking to impose a murderous, totalitarian theocracy. The question is whether Americans are willing to sustain, where necessary, a relatively modest number of forward-deployed U.S. troops to help those allies and partners succeed in these goals they share with the United States.
To be sure, not all U.S. military deployments and interventions are or have been prudent. But neither are some withdrawals, as I helped argue in a recent Foundation for Defense of Democracies report. All deserve robust and independent scrutiny. As Austin completes that scrutiny of the defense policies he inherited from the Trump administration, some of these policies may be worth keeping. Trump’s handling of allies and military withdrawals are not among them.