President Donald Trump’s idea of forcing allies to pay the full cost of housing American troops — plus a 50 percent bonus — is a “monumentally stupid approach,” says the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Are we truly saying to our allies that we want you now to pay the cost plus 50 percent of our presence?” Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, said at a committee hearing on Wednesday. “Just for the record, I think that would be a monumentally stupid approach.”
Under Trump’s direction, the administration has been drawing up demands that allies like Germany, Japan and South Korea — and eventually any country hosting U.S. troops — pay the full price of hosting the soldiers, plus 50 percent or more just for the privilege of hosting them, according to a dozen administration officials and people briefed on the subject.
The “cost-plus-50” formula would force some nations to pay five to six times more than they currently do, turning U.S. soldiers into a de facto mercenary force.
Trump has privately championed the idea for months. His insistence on it almost derailed recent talks with South Korea over the status of 28,500 U.S. troops in the country when he overruled his negotiators with a note to National Security Adviser John Bolton saying, “We want cost plus 50.”
Smith said “our troops are present in these other countries primarily for our benefit, or at least for mutual benefit” and “if we start pushing our allies away, I think that is a huge mistake.”
The “Cost Plus 50” idea also has drawn Republican criticism. “It would be absolutely devastating,” Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who heads the House Republican Conference and serves on the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Asked about the idea at the House hearing, Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said “it is not a conversation we’ve had in my portfolio at all.”
She said she understood that the “rhetoric came from conversations from the Pacific.”
According to a recent Washington Post article, South Korea reluctantly agreed to pay $925 million to host 28,500 U.S. troops, an increase of 8.2 percent from the previous year and about half the total cost. Officials reportedly wanted a five-year contract but the deal only covers one, and South Korea could be forced to meet Trump’s cost-plus-50 demand next year.
Although it may be a red herring, the phrase “cost plus 50” has appeared on informal lists of options, one official said. But it is not clear what Trump advisers mean by “cost,” whether it’s the entire budget to run a base and pay U.S. armed forces or some part of that.
U.S. allies hosting permanent American military installations pay for a portion of costs in various ways. Japan and South Korea make cash contributions, while Germany supports the U.S. troop presence through in-kind contributions such as land, infrastructure and construction, in addition to foregone customs duties and taxes.
Trump has called that “in-kind” contribution insufficient, a senior U.S. diplomat said.
For decades, leading foreign policy figures in both parties have urged U.S. allies to take on greater responsibility for their security, but even staunch advocates of burden-sharing have questioned Trump’s approach.
“Trump is correct in wanting U.S. allies to bear more responsibility for collective defense, but demanding protection money from them is the wrong way to do it,” said Stephen Walt, a scholar of international relations at Harvard University. “Our armed forces are not mercenaries, and we shouldn’t send U.S. troops into harm’s way just because another country is paying us.”
The cost-plus-50 idea would probably not be presented as a blanket demand to all allies, even if Trump ended up signing off on it, several people familiar with elements of the discussion said. Many of his top aides oppose the formula and have succeeded in the past in bringing him down from the maximalist approach, the people said.
The existence of Trump’s formula was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Critics of U.S. bases around the world say the bases are costly, stoke tensions with adversaries and have unintended consequences. The Pentagon counters that its 54,000 troops in Japan and presence in South Korea allow it to project power and deter North Korea and China.