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Bombing Blunder Bush Compromises On Vieques And Pleases No One
BY JACK KELLY
June 24, 2001
It is worse than a crime. It is a blunder," said the French statesman Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe of the execution, in 1804, of the Duc d'Enghien.
In the wake of President Bush's decision to close in 2003 the Navy's training facility on Vieques island in Puerto Rico , those of us who thought he stood for a strong national defense are wondering how to say this in Spanish.
For crassly political reasons, Bush made a decision which harms U.S. military readiness. But the president's decision to end training at Vieques in two years is bad politics as well as bad policy. It mollified none of his critics -- who demand an end to naval exercises now -- but did alarm many of his strongest supporters.
In 60 years of use, there has been just one fatality at Vieques . That happened in April 1999 when a Marine F-18 pilot erroneously identified a watchtower near the exercise area as a bombing target, and dropped an inert bomb on it, killing a civilian security guard.
No exercises were conducted on the island since the accident until this month because protesters led by those advocating independence for Puerto Rico have been squatting on the range, and President Clinton, President Bush and two governors of Puerto Rico were unwilling to evict them.
The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines must conduct live fire exercises in circumstances that closely replicate combat if they are to perform well in the real thing.
I know about the sweating in peace, having parachuted onto Vieques for a training exercise, and later having been medevaced as a heat casualty. And I can attest to the realistic training environment the island provides.
The Navy has spent billions of dollars to make Vieques the finest live fire range in the world. But Vieques is not just the best. It is unique. It is the only place on the East Coast where ships, aircraft and amphibious troops can conduct combined arms exercises. A Navy survey of 18 potential alternatives concluded: "There are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement."
Vieques is not being closed because its 9,600 residents are demanding it. There have been fewer than 200 protesters, and at least 1,700 Vieques residents have signed a petition urging the Navy to stay.
The protesters tend to come from other places. Among those arrested for breaking the law there are the Rev. Al Sharpton; Jesse Jackson's wife, Jackie, and Rep. Luis Guiterrez, D-Ill.
The prominence of supporters of independence for Puerto Rico among the Vieques protesters -- and their carpetbags -- would have raised a red flag with a press corps that was more curious or less biased. Though it has a big following among left-wing academics in the United States, independence is a nonstarter in Puerto Rico . The last time a referendum was held, in 1998, independence got barely 3 percent of the vote.
The protests have more to do with New York politics than with Puerto Rican realities. There is a large Puerto Rican community in New York City, to which Republican Gov. George Pataki has shown he can pander as shamelessly as Bill or Hillary Clinton.
But the protests are supported by Puerto Rico 's new governor, Sila Maria Calderon, who takes pains to show that she and her supporters put some distance between themselves and other Americans.
"We are Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens. We are not U.S. citizens who happen to be Puerto Ricans ," she said.
President Clinton had scheduled a referendum for November among Vieques residents to determine the future of the base. The referendum should go forward, but the stakes for it should be raised. If Puerto Rico votes the Navy out, the United States should grant Puerto Rico its independence, whether Puerto Rico wants it or not.
Puerto Ricans get the benefit of U.S. citizenship without having to perform duties required of other citizens, such as paying federal income tax. If Puerto Rico is unwilling to support the U.S. Navy, I see no reason why the United States should continue to subsidize Puerto Rico . And wouldn't it be delightful if demagogues like Gutierrez had to apply for green cards?
Jack Kelly is national affairs writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.