Why Bush Bowed Out of Vieques

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US military jeep outside the US Navy's Camp Garcia in Vieques, Puerto Rico

After years of local resistance — and a few months of high-profile protests and arrests — the U.S. has decided to end Navy training exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The bombing runs, which residents say are dangerous to their health and to the local environment, will end by 2003, according to a White House statement released Thursday.

This is a dramatic turnaround for the Bush administration, which until recently had solidly backed the Pentagon’s insistence that the Navy could not afford to lose one of its most unique and vital training grounds.

TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson has been covering the Navy’s dilemma in Vieques. He spoke with TIME.com Thursday morning.

TIME.com: Why did the White House make this decision now, after so many years of pledging to continue the bombings?

Mark Thompson: Plainly this was a political decision, not a military decision. The military did not want to give up this site. Bush, apparently for political reasons, decided to just move ahead with a closing date without asking for a referendum.

The White House perceived this to be a growing political problem among Hispanics, who are a very important and increasingly powerful political bloc.

Was Bush’s decision really so targeted, or was it designed to appeal to voters outside the Hispanic community as well?

Concern was spreading outside Hispanic community — this has become a cause celebre in certain circles — but those circles certainly aren’t representative of the American population at large.

You’ve mentioned the political benefits of Bush’s decision to stop the bombing. Will there be political fallout as well?

Definitely. Republicans on the Hill are extremely vexed by Bush’s decision, and they’re going to be demanding answers from the White House

Protesters on Vieques have vowed to continue their activities until the last plane leaves the island. Is there any chance the exercises will stop before 2003?

Who knows? A year ago the Navy said there was no chance they’d pull out of Vieques, and now they’re getting ready to move. It’s simply a question of how much the Navy is willing to give up to train their troops. Our last amphibious landing was 50 years ago — and there is the question of whether we really need to be training for another one. It’s a risk analysis, and ultimately the decision is up to the political leaders. Bush has apparently decided the political risks of continuing the bombing is greater than the risks of asking troops to train in conditions less ideal than those on Vieques.

Where might the Navy look for alternative site?

They want something in the Atlantic so they don’t have to reassign ships to a completely new locale. The Navy has held bombing practice in the Mediterranean and in Scotland. The problem is in Vieques you can have airplanes flying, dropping bombs, ground staff doing their maneuvers and amphibious crews practicing. Finding a place where you can practice the trifecta of military maneuvers — air, land and water — is extremely difficult. The Navy was well aware of this difficulty, which is why there was so much resistance to leaving Vieques in the first place.