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Jewish World Review July 9, 2001 / 18 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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A practical defeat -- TODAY'S quiz: What's the difference between the House Armed Services Committee and the Bush administration?

Answer: The House Armed Services Committee actually cares about the armed services. You could tell by the questions -- objections, really -- that were raised when some of this administration's higher-ups appeared before the committee. They were there to defend the president's decision to end practice bombing runs over Vieques Island off Puerto Rico.

Naturally they couldn't. Because it was an indefensible position. The military has no other site now available where the Navy, Marines and Air Force can simulate combined combat operations so well -- and learn to avoid casualties when the real thing becomes necessary. As it surely will. Some things are certain in this uncertain world.

The chief of naval operations, Admiral Vernon Clark, candidly told the committee that, without being able to use Vieques for training, he could "work around and get our troops to a level that we can deploy them, but it isn't the level that is the best.'' So much for only the best being good enough for our boys. Not if some local pressure group objects, it isn't.

The Navy has been practicing on Vieques for more than half a century. If it is evicted, what site would this administration suggest as a replacement? Padre Island has been nominated, perhaps on the theory that Texans have less political clout than Puerto Ricans.

Somebody suggested Martha's Vineyard, but the justice of that would be too poetic. Instead, one suspects that the administration will simply accept a lower standard of training -- and someday American sailors, Marines, and airmen will pay dearly for it. The eulogies will doubtless be eloquent.

Indeed, there have already been some horrific accidents involving Navy fliers who didn't get the usual amount of practice time over Vieques. In one mission that went wrong over Kuwait, five GIs and an army officer from New Zealand were killed. Could there be a connection here with the cutback in training?

And can this be the same George W. Bush who kept saying during last year's presidential campaign, whenever the subject of inadequate support for the military came up, that Help Was on the Way? Where is it? He's arrived, but not the help.

Already, training on Vieques has been limited in ways it isn't elsewhere. For example, live ordnance isn't used, and the number of training days has been cut in half.

If the debate over training on Vieques were a western, the U.S. Cavalry would have finally come storming onto the scene -- not to save the endangered outpost but to join in its destruction.

What possible explanation can this administration offer for giving in to political pressure and agreeing to find a new site for these maneuvers within two years? The usual: Bill Clinton made us do it!

That's right. Paul Wolfowitz, the new deputy secretary of defense, noted that the military spending bill signed into law by last year's president specified that training on Vieques would end by May of 2003 -- unless the island's residents voted otherwise. And they're scarcely likely to do that.

But a military spending bill gets passed every Congress; why not repeal that irresponsible provision in this year's? Laws can be changed. Bad decisions can be unmade. Or are military exercises everywhere in the United States and abroad to be subject to community referendums? That's a good way to make national defense a local option.

Pressed by congressmen who have devoted many years to seeing that American troops are the best trained in the world -- Missouri's venerable Ike Skelton, for example -- a properly embarrassed Paul Wolfowitz could only agree that he was defending a "fundamentally flawed public policy.'' He acted as if a policy, once adopted, couldn't be changed.

It's all enough to remind me of an editor I once ran into (crosswise) who defended his mauling my copy by explaining that there was nothing to be done; it was a matter of policy -- and he had no choice but to follow it. As if policy made editors rather than the other way around. When it comes to military training, are we to believe that last year's mistakes, once codified in policy, can't be reversed? If so, what do we have new administrations for?

It was particularly disappointing to hear Paul Wolfowitz defend this fundamentally flawed policy, and, worse, try to fob off responsibility for it -- when he's the one who's carrying it out.

Mr. Wolfowitz is an experienced and incisive critic of American military policy. There was even talk of his being appointed secretary of defense in this new administration -- and it was talk that cheered all of us who believe in a stronger, not weaker, America. Now he's justifying the kind of politically motivated, militarily irresponsible, and, yes, fundamentally flawed policy he once criticized so deftly.

How the mighty have fallen -- now that they've been given a chance to be mighty.

All agreed that Paul Wolfowitz would make a splendid appointment to a high-level post at the Defense Department -- till he was actually appointed. Now he explains that the Clinton administration is still making policy. Was it for this that all those military personnel voted for George W. Bush as the next president?

If this president can't take a stand against a few protesters augmented by a few frauds from the mainland like Al Sharpton, how's he going to stand up to any real aggressors?

This is the kind of pander we had come to expect from the last administration. Now we're told it's policy and not to be questioned. That "explanation'' not only insults the members of the House Armed Services Committee, but the intelligence of the American people.

Meanwhile, needed increases in the defense budget await the comprehensive review of the military that the new crew in Washington is supposed to be conducting. But this cave-in on Vieques is not a hopeful omen. In place of a new direction, American military policy still drifts. And the impression grows that this country's armed forces are now entering their ninth year without a commander-in-chief.

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