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THE NEW YORK POST
Message: W. Won't Fight For A Strong Defense
by JOHN PODHORETZ
June 15, 2001
THE president is in Europe trying to make a case for a missile-defense system. But it's not clear today why he's bothering - since there's now no reason to believe he is all that serious about this or any other matter relating to defense.
Bush's startling decision to halt the use of Vieques island for the Navy's land-sea-air training by 2003 indicates just how little leadership he's willing to exercise on matters of national security.
A few weeks after his inauguration, conservative foreign-policy experts uttered a warning cry when the president announced he was going to limit increases in defense spending to "quality of life" improvements relating to military pay and housing.
At the time, I thought Bush's critics were jumping the gun, being alarmist. After all, he had asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to conduct a thorough review of the nation's defense posture; it made no sense to push through spending increases until that review was done.
Besides which, Bush had to succeed in getting his tax-cut and education bills through Congress first. "Those who believe in the necessity of a new commitment to military spending should want Bush to prevail on his early agenda items," I wrote on these pages, "because victories will strengthen his hand immeasurably as he proceeds down the list of his campaign promises."
Boy, was I wrong. The administration's early stance on defense spending turned out not to be tactical, but strategic. The Bush administration retreated from the battlefield without even firing a shot. Rumsfeld's defense overhaul has since been downgraded and made part of a quadrennial defense-review process mandated by Congress - a process that inevitably leads to a big report, a few days of headlines and no real change in policy.
To salve the feelings of its conservative base - and to take up an issue that always shows strongly in national polls - the Bush administration turned instead to missile defense. The president began making the case that the 1972 treaty banning a defense system was now obsolete, which is an important point to make but is a little beside the point in the year 2001. That's especially true given the administration's reluctance to push for any new Pentagon spending.
You would think, from the way Bush is talking and the Europeans are responding, that America was ready to deploy missile defense. But without huge increases in spending on it, missile defense will remain just a topic of discussion.
The only way there can or will be spending hikes in this or any other area of defense is if the president champions it, makes the public case for it and forces Democrats to decide whether they actually want to come out in public opposition to a president who is telling the country that national security depends on a stronger and more expensive military.
People talk about the "bully pulpit" as though a president has mystical powers to sway public opinion. For the most part, he doesn't - except in the area of national defense. The American people understand (without knowing they understand) that the paramount responsibility of the executive branch is the management and furtherance of the national interest. They invariably give the president the benefit of the doubt.
Which is why the decision to abandon Vieques is so alarming. It is alarming because it is irresponsible. There is no other place on the planet for the U.S. Atlantic fleet to practice the live-bombing training for which the uninhabited portion of the Puerto Rican island is used. So says every reputable defense expert and an independent panel convened by the Pentagon to look into the matter.
However, the White House fears a revolt among Spanish-speaking voters because of charges that the bomb training has caused disease and injury among Vieques' 9,000 residents. The accusations are spurious, based on a single, and openly fraudulent, study. But rather than attempting to explain this fact, Bush is surrendering to pressure tactics.
As a result of this and other decisions, the man who promised the military that "help is on the way" now threatens to leave American national security in far worse straits than he found it.