President Trump says he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Syria, the Korean Peninsula, Europe and elsewhere and unload part of America’s military burden onto other nations, but his “default position” meets stiff headwinds inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, defense insiders and experts say.
Defense Department figures show that U.S. troop presence abroad has stayed roughly the same during the first 18 months of the Trump administration and has increased in some key corners of the globe since January 2017.
Despite Mr. Trump’s apparent desire to reduce America’s military presence in certain parts of the world, the defense spending bill he signed this month authorizes more than 15,000 additional active-duty forces, spends the most money on European-based U.S. troops since the end of the Cold War and sets up hurdles that make any effort to pull forces out of South Korea difficult if not impossible.
Analysts say Mr. Trump believes it’s in the nation’s best interest to bring at least some troops home, but his position routinely meets institutionalized resistance among Defense Department officials and hawks in Congress. Knowing that he may not be able to follow through with his goal, the president relies on the mere mention of troop withdrawal as a negotiating tool with defense officials, continually forcing them to justify troop deployments anywhere in the world, analysts say.
“It puts the leaders in the military on notice that everything has to have a continuing case,” said retired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who now serves as director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The president has a default position which says, ‘Evaluate everything. If it’s not serving our interests, reduce it, eliminate it,’” Mr. Spoehr said. “He has tested the waters, plunged the depths, and he has heard from sufficient numbers of different people that the places we have people are serving our interests … that pulling the people out would be worse than keeping them there. He’s been persuaded, for the moment, to keep these people there.”
The gap between words and actions — including the president’s February budget proposal, which called for an increase in active-duty forces and other steps seemingly at odds with a policy goal of reducing America’s global military footprint — serves another purpose, defense analysts say. Mr. Trump and his top deputies, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in particular, use the issue of troop withdrawals to their geopolitical advantage.
“The president talks about reducing commitments to allies, pulling troops out, but when you look at the budget, it’s not what we’re doing. … This has been going on since the beginning of the administration,” said retired Marine Corps Col. Mark Cancian, now a senior adviser to the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The president and Mattis, and now Pompeo — this is part of the way the administration does business,” Mr. Cancian said. “There’s a good cop, bad cop aspect to it. The president is the bad cop, Mattis is the good cop, and between them you might get more” out of other nations in terms of troop commitments in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Indeed, NATO members this year announced plans to increase their defense spending after Mr. Trump’s repeated prodding.
The number of U.S. troops abroad fluctuates, but figures show relatively little change since Mr. Trump took office. In some cases, the number of American forces has increased substantially.
About 46,000 active-duty, reserve and civilian Defense Department personnel were stationed in Japan in December 2016. By June this year, that figure was nearly 59,000, Pentagon figures show.
In South Korea, the figure rose from 26,878 to 28,598 during the same period.
In other countries, the figures have declined. The number of U.S. troops in Germany dropped from 47,810 in December 2016 to 44,857 in June.
The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center reported a total number of 275,850 active-duty, reserve and civilian military personnel stationed around the world at the end of 2016. In June, that figure had dropped to 220,112. The latest tally doesn’t include troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, where the U.S. is conducting formal military operations.
The Defense Department under Mr. Mattis has stopped regularly releasing exact tallies of troops in war zones. The figures also likely do not include all special operations personnel.
Despite the lack of clarity about the precise number of U.S. forces in some corners of the world, what is clear is that Mr. Trump’s natural inclination seems to be to bring them home whenever possible.
After his landmark summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in June, the president said he wanted to bring American troops home from South Korea — though he quickly clarified that a withdrawal was not part of the negotiations. The National Defense Authorization Act signed into law this month would make such a move difficult by requiring consultation with allies and other steps before the U.S. could reduce troop presence.
The president also has said he wants troops to come home from Syria and routinely has berated other NATO members for failing to spend enough on defense while falling back on American forces for protection.
Reports earlier this year said the administration was assessing the cost and ramifications of pulling all U.S. troops from Germany, where America has had a robust military presence since the end of World War II. The administration later disputed those reports.
At the end of the day, analysts say, Mr. Trump is regularly talked out of any plans to significantly draw down U.S. forces abroad. Usually, they say, it’s because of fears raised by military leaders, hawks on Capitol Hill or others who argue that a weaker American presence could lead to disaster.
“My assessment is that people in the Pentagon across the board, they don’t want to give any of those people up. They don’t want people to come out anywhere,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington foreign policy think tank.
“No, we can’t do that because then we create a void,” said Mr. Davis, repeating a common argument against any troop drawdown. “Bring troops home from anywhere — Germany, Korea — there’s always a reason we can’t, but they never square that with, ‘OK, [the policy] is not working for us.’”
Still, analysts note that the U.S. hasn’t moved large numbers of troops into new theaters or significantly increased America’s presence in war zones under Mr. Trump.
“I think you’re seeing some impact, not in terms of unwinding existing commitments but in not making new ones,” Mr. Cancian said. “In Afghanistan, for example, they’ve settled on a troop level, but you don’t hear talk about a surge in Afghanistan. You don’t hear about moving troops in for victory.”