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Insight on the News
Will Bush Stand Fast For Vieques?
By Woody West
September 17, 2001
A savvy old newspaperman once said that an editor's principal job is to put out little fires in his newsroom before they become big ones. This certainly applies to the presidency as well. unfortunately, as the second wave of Bushies moved into the White House, its tacticians failed to appreciate the potential of one of these small fires. The pros at the Pentagon also were blindsided - and should not have been.
Thus the fracas over the Navy's use of Vieques Island for crucial combined-arms training and amphibious exercises is burning briskly. It's become a classic no-winner for Dubya.
With perverse glee a legion of political celebrities, race hustlers, leftist ideologues and all purpose cranks has been tossing gasoline on the fire so that it now is volatile both as a convenient broiler with which to roast the administration and as a threat to military preparedness. The small Puerto Rican island had all the kindling for a four-alarm media campaign, and the pressies have been hot on the story.
The political assault has included charges of supposed colonialism and racism, of alleged harm to the physical and mental health of the islanders and, worse, according to the bird-and-bunny loonies. of severe environmental degradation. The indictment has included junk-science statistics, carefully massaged.
While Democratic Party apparatchiks have been busily stoking the blaze (Terry McAuliffe, the intellectually incontinent chairman of the party is cheering on the anti- Vieques throng), there is growing concern among more-thoughtful Democrats that this fuss is reinforcing the antimilitarist reputation of the party.
For background: The Navy and Marine Corps have for 60 years prepared for war by training on 3 percent of the island. In all that time there has been but one casualty, the Navy reports - a security guard at the range killed in 1999 by an errant bomb.
When it became evident that Vieques was red hot, President George W. Bush said he would discontinue the drills in 2003. Unacceptable, chorused the coalition of croakers. Recently a Puerto Rican referendum overwhelmingly called for Vieques to be put off-limits immediately, if not sooner. The Navy maintains that there is no comparable area where the complex of forces slow and aloft that must be coordinated in a combined-arms operation can be exercised.
The political element always is involved in military decisions, of course. The Puerto Rican vote in New York state has been a key element: Former president Bill Clinton's pardon in late 1999 of 11 jailed Puerto Rican terrorists seeking the island's independence, who had been in prison for years as a result of dozens of bombings in which six persons were killed, blatantly was intended to bolster Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York - though she asserted with a straight face that she'd never discussed that matter with Bubba. She now robustly supports the Vieques protest.
With a mayoral race under way and a gubernatorial campaign gearing up, pandering to the many Puerto Rican voters in New York is brisk. The roster of those who've joined in the island frolics includes such political faddists as Robert F Kennedy Jr., Mrs. Jesse Jackson (her husband evidently was preoccupied with his extortionate "diversity" campaign against Toyota) and camp-following liberals, leftists and all-cause opportunists being arrested on Vieques . Al Sharpton, the uncivil rights leader and a certified liar who is murmuring that he'll run for president in 2004, was thrown in the jug for 90 days after his arrest. He capitalized on this by howling that he was a political prisoner.
In even the second best of all political worlds, President Bush should have held firm and asserted that the island would continue its crucial role in military readiness. He learned the hard way that facile compromise is a mug's game. Not having seen the Vieques fuss coming, he tried to split the difference. This seldom is effective when your opponents are toasting your tender parts over the fire.
If one were feeling surly, it would be tempting to say to the protesters: "Well, fine, gang, we'll pull out of Vieques - and find other places to base the military installations now in Puerto Rico, which represent significant income to islanders." That won't happen. Nor should it. It could be useful, however, if tourists from the mainland stayed home or went elsewhere. That might get the attention of the more sensible Vieques opponents on the big island. Political blackmail, to be sure - precisely the tactics of the anti- Vieques hordes.
Puerto Rico is an anomaly. As a commonwealth, its inhabitants are U.S. citizens, with most of the advantages and few of the obligations of that status, though it must be noted that Puerto Ricans have served honorably in America's wars. There is on the island a distinctly modest enthusiasm for independence (only about 3 percent voted for it two years ago). The majority is split between commonwealth status and statehood.
As the Pentagon scurries to try to find a replacement for Vieques, it is dismally likely that Bush will concede in hopes of dousing a pestiferous fire - almost any politician would. Let us hope, rather, that the president decides to stand fast against the cranks and their media buddies for the sake of the soldiers, sailors and Marines whose lives could depend in a dangerous future on the intense training that Vieques provides.