- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2001

There are only about 9,400 people living on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Yet the military exercises held there resonate politically with the fastest-growing minority in America or at least thats what President George W. Bush appears to have bet on.

During his recent speech in Goteborg, Sweden, Mr. Bush said the Navy would halt its military training on Vieques by 2003. "My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons," said Mr. Bush. "One, there´s been harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they don´t want us there."

Surely, Mr. Bush has a point. Overbearing government is, after all, so unseemly. And ever since the accidental bombing of an observation tower that killed a Puerto Rican security guard in 1999, the people of Vieques have made it clear they want the Navy´s live-bombing exercises to stop. Furthermore, America ought to share in the burden of maintaining military readiness, so alternating sites for military exercises makes sense.

But a rotation system must have clear, previously set guidelines. If the president and military are seen bowing to political pressures, then U.S. populations living near other military-training sites would be tempted to launch their own protest campaigns. After all, no one much likes bombing in their own backyards. But a well-prepared U.S. military is an overriding priority, so these exercises must take place somewhere. Jails, waste sites, juvenile detention and drug rehabilitation centers are similarly undesirable neighborhood landmarks, but necessary nevertheless.

So Mr. Bush´s key mistake was to have made a decision regarding exercises in Vieques when the issue was so politically charged. The Rev. Jesse Jackson´s wife, Jacqueline, was photographed as she was handcuffed by a Navy security officer Monday for protesting in Vieques. The Rev. Al Sharpton was arrested in May for trespassing on government property during a Vieques demonstration, and the president´s decision to halt the Vieques bombing before having found an alternate site was very telling. Had Mr. Bush not been influenced by the ongoing uproar, he would have secured another site for the Navy before hastily abandoning Vieques.

Navy officials also appear to be behaving disingenuously. The Navy had originally maintained that Vieques was a crucial site for executing amphibious military maneuvers, such exercises involving ships´ attack formations, submarine evasion and torpedo and plane tracking. But now, the Navy maintains it first proposed closing down its Vieques operations. "In my view, the downside risk to the Navy is much greater than the upside potential," Navy Secretary Gordon England said recently. "The downside risk in this highly emotionally charged environment is that we would not have time to find alternative training for our naval forces … But I am firmly convinced that in this time period we can find an alternative for effective training for our naval forces."

This type of flip-flop injures the Navy´s credibility. But perhaps the most damning reflection on the president´s decision to close Vieques by 2003 is the fact Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat, has championed that very cause. It´s a shame Mr. Bush has made any decision which associates him with such company even if Hispanics are a key and growing voting bloc.

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