The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from Germany has come under bipartisan attack in the Senate, amid warnings it would disrupt US alliances.
The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, fended off insistent questions in the Senate on Thursday, and in so doing, falsely claimed to have fought along the East German border when he was stationed there as an army lieutenant in the late 1980s. There was no fighting in Germany during the cold war.
The Pentagon has insisted the withdrawal was ordered as part as an overall strategic repositioning of US forces abroad, but Donald Trump made clear that he saw it as punishment of Germany for not spending enough on defence.
Pompeo said that the state department had been part of the discussion about the redeployment, which involves 6,400 soldiers being brought to the US and another 5,500 being placed elsewhere in Europe, mostly Belgium and Italy.
Questioning Pompeo at a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen said: “The only country that has publicly supported the removal of US troops from Germany today has been Russia.”
The Republican senator Mitt Romney, reflecting widespread unease in the GOP about the move, told Pompeo: “I have heard from the highest levels of the German government that this is seen by them as an insult to Germany, and I can’t imagine at a time when we need to be drawing in our friends and allies so that we can collectively confront China, we want to insult them.”
Pompeo insisted that the withdrawal of troops to the US did not mean they were “off the field”.
“These units will participate in rotational activity. They’ll be forward deployed,” he said. “They won’t be stationed or garrisoned, but make no mistake about it, they will be fully available to ensure that we can properly prosecute the challenges we have from the global powers.”
His remarks appeared to reflect defence department assurances that troops brought back to the US would be available to serve temporary tours in the Baltic states, Poland or the Black Sea region.
When pressed by Shaheen on the impact of the withdrawal on the relationship with Berlin, Pompeo did not directly respond, but said: “This is personal for me. I fought on the border of East Germany when I was a young soldier. I was stationed there.”
Pompeo served as a lieutenant in a tank regiment in West Germany from 1986 to 1991, during which time the east-west border was entirely peaceful. He did not take part in any combat during his military career.
Shaheen reminded him that his former unit was one of those being recalled to the US. Foreign Policy cited defence department documents on Thursday, in which troops in Germany were informed the redeployment would “likely take months to plan and years to execute”.
Trump has said he ordered the move because Germany was not spending enough on its own defence and American taxpayers were being “taken for suckers”.
However, Germany has recently increased its spending, and has said it is on course to achieve the 2% GDP target for defence expenditure that Nato set for 2024.
Belgium and Italy, where many US troops are due to be redeployed, spend less than Germany as a share of national income.
Diplomats and former officials have suggested that Trump’s decision may have been driven by personal animus towards Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Fox News reported in June that the withdrawal was the idea of the ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as a reprisal for Angela Merkel’s decision not to attend a G7 summit at Camp David at the height of the pandemic.