Thiessen: Trump can shut down his Russia critics with one bold move
WASHINGTON — If President Trump wants to shut down the critics of his performance this week in Helsinki and strengthen U.S. national security, he can do so with one bold move: Announce he is moving out most U.S. forces currently stationed in Germany and sending them to Poland.
The Polish government recently presented Trump with a formal proposal to move U.S. troops from Stuttgart, Germany, to a new permanent U.S. military base in Poland. Trump should take up Warsaw on this offer.
Moving U.S. troops to Poland would a bold, historic decision on par with Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Not only would it better position American forces, it also would completely flummox Trump's critics in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. After spending the past week accusing him of being Putin's puppet, they would look foolish if they turned around and criticized him for antagonizing Russia. And after attacking him for undermining NATO, they could hardly complain that he is taking unprecedented action to shore up the alliance's Eastern flank.
Such a move would reinforce the tough line the president took on defense spending at last week's NATO summit, by punishing a deadbeat ally that does not meet its NATO commitments and rewarding a steadfast ally that does. Why should Germany — a country that spends just 1.24 percent of its gross domestic product on defense — continue to be rewarded with the economic benefit of U.S. bases? Better to station U.S. forces in a country such as Poland that is providing what Trump has called a "truly magnificent" example as "one of the NATO countries that has actually achieved the benchmark for investment in our common defense."
Trump can further argue that Germany's actions beyond its inadequate defense spending have necessitated this move. At NATO, Trump blasted the Germany-to-Russia Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, declaring "it's a very bad thing for NATO." He's right. The pipeline not only makes Germany more dependent on Moscow for energy, it also risks the security of Poland and other Eastern European allies.
Right now, all Russian gas exports to Western Europe go through pipelines that cross Poland and Slovakia — which means Russia cannot cut off gas to NATO allies in the East without also cutting off its lucrative exports to the West. But once the new pipeline is built, sending gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, Russia will be able to shut off energy supplies to Eastern Europe far more easily. Trump can correctly say that he needs to shore up the security of NATO's East European allies because of the German government's sign-off on the pipeline.
The move would also address a major U.S. strategic concern about its ability to deter Russia. The Post recently reported that U.S. military commanders are worried that if they had to quickly move U.S. troops east to head off a military conflict with Moscow, "the most powerful military in the world could get stuck in a traffic jam" as "Humvees ... snarl behind plodding semis on narrow roads" and "U.S. tanks ... crush rusting bridges too weak to hold their weight." Stationing American forces in Poland would alleviate that problem. As the Polish government points out in its proposal, "a U.S. permanent presence in Poland [offers] a more forward operating location than Stuttgart provides, would greatly alleviate well founded fears that fellow Eastern European and Baltic governments have that Moscow would be able to overtake defending forces prior to the support of U.S. and NATO forces in Stuttgart could provide."
The move would also benefit U.S. taxpayers. The Polish government has offered up to $2 billion to cover most of the costs of building such a base and supporting U.S. troops in Poland, declaring it is committed "to share the burden of defense spending [and] make the decision more cost-effective for the U.S. government." This should be attractive to Trump, who has criticized other allies for not paying enough for the cost of stationing U.S. forces on their territory.
And there is one last good reason to do it: Poland loves Trump. When Trump spoke in Warsaw last year, his speech was repeatedly interrupted by chants of "Donald Trump! Donald Trump!" Such response would be unimaginable in Berlin.
The U.S. military presence in Germany is a legacy of the Cold War, when we positioned our forces to deter a Soviet invasion from East Germany. Today the need for deterrence is undiminished, but the potential line of contact has moved east. So should the U.S. military.