COLOGNE, Germany – German defense chief Ursula von der Leyen is banking on a personal commitment by James Mattis to keep U.S. troops in Germany, telling a magazine here that she “trusts” in the word of President Trump’s defense secretary.
Her comments, published by the Focus website on Friday, add fresh evidence that officials in both countries are trying to quell the uproar over a report that Washington is weighing changes to its troop posture in Europe. That possibility was raised in a Washington Post article in late June.
Von der Leyen said Mattis had “assured her once again that U.S. troops feel very welcome” in Germany.“ The Pentagon also continues to emphasize that the “diverse support by us as host nation and the infrastructure built on German soil over decades constitute an incalculable benefit,” von der Leyen was quoted as telling Focus.
A defense ministry spokesman told Defense News the conversation mentioned by von der Leyen took place when she visited Mattis at the Pentagon on June 21.
The June 29 Washington Post report, citing anonymous sources, said the Trump administration’s concerns about the cost of the 32,000-strong U.S. troop presence stemmed from a meeting between Trump and White House and military aides “earlier this year.”
Von der Leyen and Mattis last spoke by phone this week in preparation for the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12, but a spokesman couldn’t say whether the issue of troop withdrawals came up again.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, on Thursday told reporters that reducing troop levels in Germany would not be part of Trump’s focus during his much anticipated appearance at the gathering of alliance leaders. In fact, just the opposite is being discussed, an unnamed White House official told reporters, according to Military Times.
“There is nothing being said at all about the troop alignment in Germany or anything that would change” the existing stationing scheme, Hutchison was quoted as saying by the Washington Post on Thursday. “I’ve heard nothing on that score.”
The topic has become something of an annoyance for German defense leaders in recent days, as many here are already on the edge about the summit.
While the Washington Post reported that the prospect of the United States reassessing its troop footprint in Germany had European officials “alarmed,” it is entirely possible that the report generated far more hype in the United States than in Germany, the purported subject of the drill.
As much as von der Leyen’s and Hutchison’s recent comments suggest an effort to calm the waters between Washington and Berlin, analysts here believe Trump remains the wild card in Brussels. At a campaign-style rally in Montana on Thursday, the president proclaimed that “they kill us with NATO,” an apparent reference to his long-standing belief that Europe is taking advantage of the United States in trade and defense.
The rhetoric suggests European leaders can brace for a rough two days next week. That is not so much because they must endure another public scolding, but because their desperate efforts to display unity in the face of trans-Atlantic divisions could be pummeled once again.