WASHINGTON — President Bush’s plan to call tens of thousands of U.S. troops home from Europe and Asia could gain him election-year applause from military families, but won’t ease the strain on soldiers still battling violent factions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a speech Monday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati, Bush will announce one of the largest troop realignments since the end of the Cold War.
Senior administration officials say Bush’s plan affects 70,000 or more uniformed military personnel plus 100,000 of their family members and support personnel. A significant portion would be sent to bases in the United States, although others could be shifted to posts in Eastern Europe, they said.
“The new initiative will enhance our ability to respond to threats abroad,” a White House official said Sunday on condition of anonymity. “It will strengthen our ability to protect America and its allies and ease some of the burden on the military and military families. We have worked closely with our friends and allies around the world and Congress on this initiative.”
U.S. armed forces stationed abroad in places other than Iraq and Afghanistan number about 200,000. About half are in Europe. The Pentagon advised German officials earlier this year that it was thinking about removing two Army divisions from Germany and replacing them with smaller, more mobile units.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld briefed his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, over the weekend during a visit to St. Petersburg. He told reporters later that the Russians “have an interest” in the redeployment plan, presumably because some of the countries that could play host to U.S. troops are former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact states.
Bush’s speech comes as the U.S. death toll in Iraq is approaching 1,000 and National Guard and Reserve troops are serving extended tours of duty.
National security credentials
Aides to Democratic challenger John Kerry blamed a lack of postwar planning by the Bush administration for the increased burden the reservists are shouldering. They also noted that the Massachusetts senator has proposed adding 40,000 troops to the regular Army and expanding special operations forces.
Kerry has said he would try to withdraw some troops from Iraq during his first six months in office. That idea has drawn criticism from Bush, who says that simply would urge insurgents to wait until the U.S. presence was thinned before attacking.
Both Bush and Kerry, who is to speak Wednesday to the 15,000 VFW convention-goers, have been trying to bolster their national security credentials.
The president is working to convince voters that he is a strong, unwavering leader who has taken steps to make America safer and is best to lead the battle against terrorists. Democrats countered by opening their July convention with a focus on Kerry’s Vietnam combat experience, in contrast to Bush’s non-combat role in the Texas Air National Guard during the war.
The VFW convention is getting special attention from both political parties partly because it is being held in Ohio, perhaps the hottest battlefield of this year’s election. Bush carried Ohio by 3.6 percentage points in 2000 over Democrat Al Gore.
Later Monday, Bush travels to a campaign rally in northern Michigan, a state he lost to Gore. Bush’s visit to Traverse City, Mich., will be first by a sitting president since Gerald Ford in 1975.
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