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Pentagon Chief to Shore Up Europe Ties 04/13 06:15

   Nearly a year after President Donald Trump ordered thousands of troops to 
leave Germany, capping a series of setbacks for U.S. relations with major 
allies, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin began an inaugural tour of Europe 
to shore up partnerships that are a cornerstone of the post-World War II order.

   BERLIN (AP) -- Nearly a year after President Donald Trump ordered thousands 
of troops to leave Germany, capping a series of setbacks for U.S. relations 
with major allies, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin began an inaugural tour 
of Europe to shore up partnerships that are a cornerstone of the post-World War 
II order.

   Austin arrived in Berlin on Monday against the backdrop of a newly emerging 
crisis with Iran, which on Monday blamed Israel for a recent attack on its 
underground Natanz nuclear facility. Israel has not confirmed or denied 
involvement, but the attack nonetheless imperils ongoing talks in Europe over 
Tehran's tattered nuclear deal.

   Also at stake in Austin's visit is the future direction of U.S. defense 
commitments in Europe at a time of growing concern about Russian military 
intervention on NATO's periphery, including a buildup of Russian forces near 
Ukraine's border. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was headed to Europe 
to discuss with U.S. allies the Ukraine situation as well as the 
administration's thinking on further withdrawals of troops from Afghanistan.

   The United States also seeks European support for its approach to countering 
China around the world and for efforts to restore an international agreement 
with limits on Iran's nuclear program.

   Austin arrived in the German capital on Monday night and will hold talks 
Tuesday with senior government officials. He will also visit NATO headquarters 
later this week in Belgium and meet with British defense officials in London. 
He began his trip Sunday in Israel, where he underscored U.S. defense support 
in meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny 
Gantz.

   Austin, a former four-star Army general whose overseas military experience 
was primarily in Iraq, is likely to assure German officials of intentions by 
the Biden administration to keep troops in Germany, though the number is 
subject to discussion as part of a monthslong global review of the basing of 
U.S. troops. Last year, Trump ordered the number in Germany reduced by about 
12,000, to about 24,000.

   In his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels since taking office, 
Austin will meet with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who declared on 
President Joe Biden's inauguration day that the arrival of a new administration 
marked "the start of a new chapter for the trans-Atlantic alliance."

   Trump's departure from the world stage gave the Biden administration an 
opening to restore a more supportive U.S. approach to Europe and the NATO 
alliance, but complications will persist. For example, the NATO allies are 
anxious for Biden to decide whether to pull out of Afghanistan. NATO has more 
troops there than does the United States, and Biden's indecision troubles them, 
not least because they count on U.S. military support for removing troops and 
equipment.

   The attack on Iran's Natanz nuclear facility further complicates U.S. 
efforts to draw Iran back into a nuclear deal. Austin was asked about this 
earlier Monday while in Israel, and he said only that he expects the 
administration's diplomatic efforts with Iran will continue.

   On the broader horizon, the European allies remain uncertain how their 
defense and security relationship with the United States will be affected by 
Biden's push to focus more on China as the chief threat to U.S. security. That 
shift in U.S. thinking began during the Obama administration, which announced a 
"pivot" to Asia that left Europeans thinking their U.S. ally was turning its 
back. Washington adjusted diplomatically and rhetorically, assuring the 
Europeans that it was just a "rebalancing."

   Then came Trump. His administration further emphasized China as the prime 
security threat, but of greater concern to the Europeans was his frequent, 
sometimes shocking, denigration of the trans-Atlantic partnership that had been 
the foundation of U.S. security policy for decades. He dismissed the NATO 
allies as freeloaders, and last summer he ordered the removal of about 
one-third of the U.S. force in Germany, as well as the move of U.S. European 
Command headquarters from Germany to Belgium.

   "We don't want to be the suckers anymore," Trump told reporters last July, 
calling the Germans ingrates who don't spend enough on defense but expect the 
United States to protect them from Russia.

   Germany has been an anchor for the U.S. military presence in Europe since 
the early post-World War II years. In addition to hosting the headquarters for 
U.S. European and U.S. Africa commands, Germany's Ramstein Air Base is 
headquarters for NATO air and missile defenses. The U.S. Army's largest 
overseas hospital, the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, is a few miles from 
Ramstein Air Base. The U.S. Air Force also has a substantial presence in 
Germany, including the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem.

   In his first speech to an international audience, Biden in February declared 
to the Munich Security Conference: "America is back, the trans-Atlantic 
alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward 
together."

   Biden suspended the Trump decision on a partial withdrawal of troops from 
Germany, which had not yet been implemented. It seems likely the administration 
will decide not to carry out the Trump order.

   Jim Townsend, who served throughout the Obama administration as the 
Pentagon's lead policy official on Europe and NATO, said in an interview that 
he sees lasting value in Austin's touring of European capitals early in his 
tenure.

   "It's a better way to repair the torn fabric of that trans-Atlantic 
relationship," Townsend said.

   Even if the Europeans can put the Trump-era tensions behind them, they will 
still have questions about the Biden emphasis on China, which is not a 
front-burner issue for the Europeans. They largely view NATO as a bulwark 
against Russia, particularly since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and 
its intervention in eastern Ukraine, which is not a NATO member but aspires to 
join.

 
 
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