This American troop withdrawal marks a new era

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President Bush's announcement that the US armed forces will be reconfigured to bring home as many as 70,000 servicemen and women and 100,000 civilians over the next 10 years was presented as evidence that he would honour his undertaking to make the military leaner and fitter, "more agile and flexible", to meet 21st-century needs. In fact, it was far more significant than this.

President Bush's announcement that the US armed forces will be reconfigured to bring home as many as 70,000 servicemen and women and 100,000 civilians over the next 10 years was presented as evidence that he would honour his undertaking to make the military leaner and fitter, "more agile and flexible", to meet 21st-century needs. In fact, it was far more significant than this.

In the short term, it showed how much trouble Mr Bush's re-election campaign is in over Iraq, even in the hitherto safe Republican constituency of the military. It is well known that recruitment and re-enlistment rates are dropping in the light of the risks faced by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The pledge that troops would in future serve more time at home - a pledge, it should be noted, that he chose to take credit for himself rather than delegate to the Defence Secretary or top brass - was designed to stabilise morale, even though it implies no immediate change in the number of those deployed in Iraq.

In the longer term, Mr Bush's announcement - as it was fleshed out by the White House in advance - amounts to the largest realignment of US military strength since the end of the Cold War. It deserves to be noticed for this reason alone. Almost half of all US troops stationed abroad (outside Iraq and Afghanistan) will be affected, and a large proportion of these are in Europe.

Mr Bush gave no details of the changes. It is not yet known how many US bases will be shut and how many transferred. The bulk of those closed or contracted, however, are expected to be in Germany, with new operational centres established in the new EU states and former Soviet republics which are supplying facilities and manpower for the US in Iraq. Mr Bush said he saw an opportunity to "strengthen alliances and build new partnerships".

The question is what message these moves will send. The commitment to Germany has long been equated with a continuing US commitment to Europe and to the transatlantic alliance. To close bases in Germany and establish a more permanent presence in, say, Uzbekistan, would mark the end of an era; perhaps the decline of a commitment as well.

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