US to close 129 military bases: Clinton vows dollars 5bn aid to local communities

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday swiftly approved the closure of almost 130 domestic US military bases recommended by an independent commission, and immediately promised dollars 5bn ( pounds 3.3bn) to assist local communities whose economies are likely to be devastated by the blow.

Mr Clinton told reporters the aid represented 'an unprecedented federal effort' to cushion the effects of the cuts, the latest phase of the Pentagon's painful adjustment to a post-Cold War world. In all, 129 bases will be shut and a further 46 'realigned'.

Few regions have been spared. Some of the victims, such as the Charleston naval shipyard in South Carolina, are synonymous with US military history. California takes the heaviest punishment. Already battered by recession, the Golden State must now cope with no fewer than 30 base closures, including the Vallejo shipyard in San Francisco Bay.

The Pentagon has also just announced plans to shut or scale down 92 overseas bases. Almost all are in Germany, including Bitburg Air Base, scene of President Ronald Reagan's controversial visit in 1985. The moves fit in with the Clinton administration's goal of reducing US forces in Europe to 100,000, compared to President George Bush's target of 150,000 and a Cold War peak of around 350,000. The total of foreign bases has been halved since 1990.

The commission's list was only sent to the White House earlier this week, after it heard final appeals. Moving with uncharacteristic speed, Mr Clinton wants to minimise the inevitable political repercussions. Both he and Congress, which must pass its own judgement this autumn, have the choice of accepting the list as it stands or rejecting it.

His prompt action hugely increases the chances Congress will take the medicine too. 'Some members will be permitted to vent their frustration and pound their chests in outrage,' said the commission chairman, James Courter. 'But I'm 100 per cent convinced that when the leaves fall off the trees this fall, Congress will overwhelmingly accept this package.'

The closures announced yesterday are the climax of a process which began before even President Bush took office. But they have steadily grown in scope as the Soviet threat receded and pressures intensified for a shift from military to civilian spending. The dollars 5bn in aid pledged by Mr Clinton, coupled with the costs of closure, will add to the defence budget in the short term. But by the year 2000, the retrenchments should save about dollars 2.3bn annually.

Federal agencies have 90 days to calculate their first conversion proposals. These are likely to include sales of military land, and help with the speedy 'clean-up' of former bases. In each community, a single co-ordinator will be in charge of conversion plans. It was, Mr Clinton said, 'the least we can do . . . to help these patriotic citizens, cities and towns prosper'.

US unemployment, page 19

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