- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

Members of Congress accused President Bush of honoring ethnic politics instead of combat readiness in his announcement yesterday that the Navy will abandon the live-ammunition Vieques training range in 2003.
Mr. Bushs move was particularly upsetting to pro-defense Republicans who worked hard to forge a compromise to let the residents of Puerto Ricos Vieques Island decide in a referendum in November whether the range would stay open.
"It was a bad political decision," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Its one that in my view could very easily cost American lives."
He added, "Im going to stop it. Im not going to allow it. We have a law we carefully worded last year — ironically we did it because I thought there was a possibility that Al Gore would be president and I wanted to make sure that we could still get our referendum, never dreaming wed have a problem with a Republican president. Im sick about it."
Mr. Inhofe contends that the law requires the Bush administration receive congressional approval to close the range. And he said he wants the November referendum to go forward.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, also said in an interview yesterday he opposes Mr. Bushs decision and will fight to keep the site open.
"I really think its not the right decision," Mr. Stump said. "I cannot believe the admirals are happy with this decision or the commandant of the Marine Corps and his generals because its a vital segment of our training."
Mr. Stump said he "has to assume" the Hispanic vote is "part of the equation" because New York Gov. George E. Pataki urged the president to close the range.
"I think we should be more considerate about our military, their safety and their adequate training," Mr. Stump said.
Ironically, it was President Clinton, viewed with some suspicion by top military officers, who worked to find a compromise that would keep the range open. It is Mr. Bush, who campaigned on a promise to shore up combat readiness, that has decided to abandon what the Navy and Marine Corps consider their most important East Coast training site. Pilots, sailors and Marines train against targets at Vieques before deploying to dangerous missions in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf.
"My attitude is that the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises, for a lot of reasons," Mr. Bush said during a press conference in Goteborg, Sweden. "One theres been harm done to people in the past. Secondly, these are our friends and neighbors and they dont want us there."
He added, "I have made the statement loud and clear that within a reasonable period of time, that the Navy will find another place to practice and to be prepared to keep the peace. Its the right agreement."
Republicans on Capitol Hill dispute this point. They said Mr. Bushs announcement came as a surprise since they worked to forge last years compromise law. The Republicans say they believe a majority of island residents will vote to let the Navy retain bombing rights.
Local government leaders and activists in Puerto Rico have mounted protests against the Navy range ever since an aviator accidentally bombed an observation tower in 1999, killing a Puerto Rican security guard. It was the first fatality in the sites 60-year history. The protesters have received support from liberal Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The Bush White House has been mapping strategy to garner more of the growing Hispanic vote for the Republican Party and for the president himself should he seek re-election in 2004. The 2000 census showed that Hispanics are Americas fastest-growing minority.
Republican congressional staffers suggested that White House political adviser Karl Rove was behind Mr. Bushs decision. But Press Secretary Ari Fleischer denied that politics played any role in Mr. Bushs announcement.
"No, this was a decision made on the merits," Mr. Fleischer said. "The president had two concerns in mind. One is ensuring that our military is trained for the mission required, and two, listening to the legitimate concerns of the people of Puerto Rico."
The Vieques decision highlights the latest rift on defense issues between the Bush administration and congressional Republicans. Previously, lawmakers were unhappy the president delayed submitting a $6 billion supplemental budget bill to cure immediate readiness ills. And, they say the Pentagon has failed to keep them abreast of an ongoing strategy and force-structure review, while also being tardy in presenting a fiscal 2002 defense budget.
Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon said yesterday she had "mixed emotions" about Mr. Bushs announcement, saying the bombing practices will continue until 2003.
During a news conference at the governors mansion, Miss Calderon, a staunch opponent of the U.S. military presence on Vieques, said that her administration would continue a legal battle to compel the Navy to stop its bombing practices before then.
"I have mixed emotions about this latest news that I have received. It leaves us with an emptiness because the continued bombing harms and violates the civil rights of the people of Vieques," she said.
The Navy now must begin investigating possible new ranges. The service did a similar survey in 1999, but said it could not find any location that offered all of Vieques features for land, air and sea assaults.
"Im not happy about the Vieques bit at all," said a Marine fighter pilot. "Many states have ranges which are used for live-fire exercises, but Vieques is unique owing to its role as a range for naval surface gunfire support."
The Navy and Marine Corps leaders, including Gen. James Jones, the Marine commandant, have made sustained public statements to Congress and in the media in defense of maintaining Vieques.
Mr. Bush yesterday tried to present the decision as rubber-stamping what the military wanted. "I appreciate the fact that the Defense Department and the Navy responded. … I applaud the Defense Department and the Navy for reaching that agreement," he said.
But congressional sources said the decision to leave Vieques was dictated to the Pentagon by the White House.
"The White House has muzzled the military," said a congressional aide.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought to snuff out any suggestions that he disagrees with Mr. Bushs announced policy.
"I am in full agreement with the president of the United States," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "I dont know how anyone could be more explicit."

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