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Keep Vieques In Perspective, End Bombing, Have Some Patience, Speed Search, Bush Puts U.S. Interests 2nd, Threat Isn't From Navy
Keep Vieques In Proper Perspective
August 8, 2001
THE U.S. NAVY'S hold on its vital training range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques has become plainly untenable. What began years ago as local protests by Vieques residents unhappy about noise and alleged affronts to nationalist sensitivities has escalated steadily.
The political and practical momentum of these protests now has gone well beyond the point of no return.
Regrettably, forcing the Navy off its only combined arms range anywhere in the entire Atlantic theater has become a priority "Hispanic" and "civil rights" issue. In recent months, these escalating protests have come complete with celebrity civil disobedience and boutique jail terms for such opportunists as demagogue Al Sharpton and Robert Kennedy Jr.
DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL Chairman Terry McAuliffe recently flew to Puerto Rico to demand that the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has backpedaled steadily in the face of strident and increasingly irresponsible opposition. Clinton, eager to curry favor with Puerto Rican voters as his wife ran for New York's Senate seat, agreed to a Vieques referendum the Navy was bound to lose in the current hothouse atmosphere.
The Bush administration, eager to bolster its own standing among potentially decisive Hispanic voters, caved further. Bush and Navy Secretary Gordon England announced that the Navy would abandon Vieques in 2003 and meanwhile limit its bombing to inert ordnance.
WHAT GOT LOST in all this hyperventilating protest and political calculation was national security, most especially the urgent matter of combat readiness for America's naval and Marine forces. The facts are stark and unmistakable:
Vieques is the only place in the Atlantic operating area where the Navy and Marine Corps can conduct live-fire exercises that combine aerial bombing, naval gunfire shore bombardment and Marine amphibious landings. Without all of these, practiced in concert, Navy and Marine units headed out to confront Saddam Hussein over Iraq and in the Persian Gulf, and to patrol the Adriatic Sea off the volatile Balkans cannot be considered combat ready. Period. Navy and Marine Corps leaders have said exactly this for many years, without qualification.
Navy Secretary England, stuck with the Bush edict, says the sea service is aggressively looking for replacement ranges. If any were apparent, they would have been identified years, even decades, ago as the use of Vieques grew more controversial.
AN ALARMED House Armed Services Committee voted last week to prohibit the Navy from abandoning Vieques until a replacement range as good or better is available. Given the political realities, that well-intentioned position may be unsustainable.
But the Bush administration and the Navy must at the very least insist on full use of Vieques through 2003 while the most intensive search is made for a replacement range or ranges. If nothing suitable can be found, Washington may have to negotiate anew with the commonwealth officials in Puerto Rico .
Americans in uniform must not be sent less than fully prepared into harm's way for reasons of anyone's political fashion or convenience.
End Vieques Bombing
August 9, 2001
Four days after Vieques voters overwhelmingly called for an immediate end to the bombing on their island, Navy gunships pounded the firing range along the beaches. The results of the nonbinding referendum were symbolic. So was the Navy's obtrusive response to it. The United States continues to foment resentment with a neighbor that most Americans consider the 51st state.
False starts, false stops and halfhearted measures make U.S. policy toward Vieques universally annoying. The Clinton administration and Puerto Rico 's then-Gov. Pedro J. Rossello agreed last year to bombing reductions and a phased withdrawal plan. The Bush administration says it will order the Navy to leave by May 1, 2003. A binding federal referendum scheduled for November would allow the island's 5,900 registered voters to choose between the 2003 withdrawal, with dummy bombing until then, or allowing the Navy to stay and use live ammunition. Last week's nonbinding referendum, in which 68 percent opted for an immediate end of all exercises, was a show of public opinion intended to pressure U.S. officials to find another site quickly.
The Navy long has insisted that no other suitable place exists on the planet. But even within the military, that assertion is viewed as increasingly suspect.
Critics point to Vieques as proof of the adage that the military prepares for the next war by refighting the last one. The Navy is using the island for amphibious assault training that is impractical in modern warfare because the tactic can cause politically unacceptable high casualty rates. Recall the beachfront invasion of Kuwait City that did not happen during the Persian Gulf War. Vieques is fulfilling old admirals' fantasies of Iwo Jima and D-Day but doing little to prepare sailors and Marines for likely battles in future campaigns.
Bombing ranges that in many ways are superior to Vieques can be found in California, throughout the Southwest and in Florida. Business leaders along the Panhandle were thrilled when recent celebrity-infested protests at Vieques forced the Navy to move exercises to Pensacola Naval Air Station and sprawling Eglin Air Force Base, which covers 724 square miles along the Gulf Coast. More ships with more sailors mean more port calls and more spending in the Fort Walton Beach area. U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Pensacola, was so elated he pleaded with the Pentagon to come back soon and often.
There are places that actually want the Navy's bombing. The Navy should pick one of them, because Vieques clearly does not.
Have Some Patience
August 11, 2001
President Bush has promised to end military exercises on the Puerto Rico island of Vieques by May 2003. But one would think no end is in sight based on the hype surrounding the military's training and presence.
Sixty-eight percent of Vieques voters in a straw ballot a week ago said they wanted the military off the island now. Hundreds of people have been arrested for trespassing on federal property to protest.
Hard feelings toward the Navy erupted in 1999 after an off-target bomb killed a local guard in an observation post on the bombing range. The Navy owns two-thirds of the island, which has about 9,400 residents.
The island has been a valuable training venue for the U.S. Navy for 60 years. Its blend of deep water, beaches and seclusion has made it a coveted location that continues to be challenging to replace, although leaders in several areas in the United States -- including the Panhandle -- are interested.
U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said four days of visiting with residents of Vieques convinced him that the military issue is more about property values than human rights and safety.
Much of the protest is being fueled by developers who want their hands on the island's 18 miles of beaches at rock bottom prices, he says.
A true test of Puerto Rican sentiment would be to ask if it wanted the Navy presence removed entirely, including Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station with its $300 million annual impact.
Speed Vieques Search
August 18, 2001
Our position: The Navy should seize the opportunity to combine goals in its search for alternatives.
Rarely is a day likely to pass without tension on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. That's because many residents, angry over the risks, want the training to end right away. The Navy doesn't plan to leave until 2003. All the more reason for the Navy to locate an alternative as soon as possible. That can happen without endangering national security.
Some alternatives quickly should be dismissed. The idea, for example, of replicating Vieques at another location would take too long -- much more than two years -- and require untold spending. Actually, why try?
Although most defense experts argue persuasively that no existing site can duplicate the simultaneous air, land and sea exercises that take place mostly year-round on Vieques, that may not be necessary.
After all, the Navy should be thinking about training needs for decades into the future, which could be very different than the status quo.
The goal should be to figure out a strategy to use and, in some cases, improve several existing bases in combination. That could involve the Navy's sharing of bases with other U.S. military branches. Most appealing would be an alternative that places all training in a general area that is easily accessible by most East Coast U.S. naval forces.
The Navy also shouldn't ignore the potential of combining that training with exercises at bases of friendly nations in Europe and elsewhere. Defense specialists say that such a plan would produce the right result: shortening the time to develop an alternative while maintaining readiness.
August 23, 2001
A recent poll shows Europeans are disappointed with President Bush, and chief among their complaints is their feeling that his decisions are based solely on what's good for America.
If only that were true.
In Bush's seven months in office, America's interests have taken a back seat to those of Europeans, Puerto Ricans , Mexicans and his own Republican Party. He has embraced the idea of expanding NATO to Russia's border, alarming Moscow for the sake of three European nations that mean nothing to U.S. security. He has sacrificed future U.S. military readiness by ordering the Navy to abandon its crucial training range on Puerto Rico 's Vieques Island, responding to GOP advisers who view the move as essential to attracting Latino voters. He is reportedly close to granting amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants from Mexico, again in hopes of wooing Latino voters, and threatening to veto legislation that would require thousands of Mexican trucks to pass safety inspections before rolling onto U.S. highways.
Then there is the matter of Europe's defense, which might be easy for Europeans to overlook because they play so small a part in it. The Bush administration has resisted suggestions from a few European Union leaders that they form their own defense force, preferring instead to continue bearing the obscene expense of garrisoning 100,000 U.S. soldiers on the Continent.
Bush also recently embraced his predecessor's Balkans policy, which he criticized during last year's campaign, by pledging to leave nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia and Kosovo until it is safe for all the other NATO troops to pull out. And he will build on President Clinton's Balkans blunders by helping NATO enforce a shaky peace pact in Macedonia.
NATO has agreed to relieve Macedonia's ethnic Albanians of their weapons, which they might not even possess today if earlier Western meddling hadn't turned Kosovo into a base for Albanian terrorism. Like Bosnia and Kosovo, Macedonia appears to be a long-term project for U.S. troops -- yet in none of the three does America hold a vital interest.
After yielding so much national sovereignty to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Union, Europeans are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of a president who would put his country's interests ahead of all others. But they needn't worry about Bush. Unfortunately for America, he's not that kind of leader.
Vieques Threat Isn't From Navy
August 23, 2001
Vieques is a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico . A large part of it is used by the Navy as a gunnery range.
Having visited Vieques , I agree that it is beautiful, not yet disturbed with large modern buildings or vacation paradises on the many beaches. The natives enjoy a relaxed way of life.
There are several beautiful public beaches. Three of them are on the land controlled by the Navy. They are open to the public whenever the Navy isn't using the gunnery range. While the beaches are far removed from the target areas, they are closed for safety on those days when the Navy is using the range. If these beaches were closed, we simply went to another beach not on Navy grounds.
There are many individuals attempting to have the Navy leave the island. I got the impression from talking to several residents that their lifestyle was supported monetarily by the Navy and that they enjoyed and desired to continue with this relaxed lifestyle without a large influx of tourists to disrupt the way they now live.
If the Navy is removed, I wonder who will benefit? Will it be the natives who now have a good living with few pressures from the outside world or will it be some millionaires who will develop the beaches?
Will this beautiful little island change in the next 10 years? I think so. Will it be better for the many existing inhabitants? I doubt it. Charles A. Klemick Mechanicsburg