It was a triumph of political calculation over logistical concerns. It made no sense to the Pentagon to go through the logistical headaches of sending the country’s most advanced tanks to Ukraine when there were very capable German Leopard tanks nearby that could get to Ukraine faster, and operate more efficiently.
On top of that, several European countries, including Spain, Poland and Finland, were willing to send their German Leopard tanks if Germany would only agree — a legal requirement that came with their original acquisition of their German-made equipment.
In senior Biden administration meetings, Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out the Pentagon position. In subsequent interviews, White House national security officials dutifully repeated the military talking points about why the Abrams did not make sense, while European tanks did.
But Mr. Austin and General Milley are charged with giving Mr. Biden their best military advice; in this case it clashed with the need to preserve unity among the allies. What the Pentagon was not taking into enough account, one official said, was the intense fear among European governments of doing anything to provoke Russia without having the cover of the United States doing the same thing first.
“Like it or not, that means the United States remains the glue that holds NATO and Europe together,” said Peter Juul, a national security analyst in the newsletter The Liberal Patriot.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Mr. Scholz was clear, according to several people who heard him, that he would not agree to send Leopard tanks until the United States agreed to send its Abrams. American officials at first thought he could be persuaded otherwise, and hoped that a commitment by Britain to send Challenger 2 tanks — which have different operational requirements — would move him to do the same.
It did not, as German officials made clear to Mr. Austin and General Milley during a meeting on Friday of more than 50 allies at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.