- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) — Is George W. Bush a competent president? And is he a lucky one? In terms of his personal political effectiveness, the answer to both questions remains a resounding "Yes!" But if one asks whether that luck and competence also carry over to the great nation he leads, the answer appears to be an unnerving "No."

Consider, the president inherited a United States blessed with peace, prosperity, a booming stock market and a healthy annual budget surplus. It now has none of those things.

Many of the current problems were inevitably looming long before the 43rd president of the United States took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But by no means all of them.

Up to now Bush, with a great deal of public success and significant actual support, has succeeded in blaming almost all of the problems he has had to face on his predecessor in office, President Bill Clinton.

It is certainly true, as UPI business editor Martin Hutchinson has repeatedly pointed out, that the U.S. economy and stock market were in a dangerous speculative frenzy rising through Clinton's second term comparable to the one that developed in the late 1920s under President Calvin Coolidge.

But Clinton, like Coolidge, had the good luck to leave office before the speculative bubble burst in its full fury — although that process began when the Internet bubble was pricked in March 2000 while he was still president — and all the dark, grim homing pigeons came home to roost.

It was also the case that what we now call homeland security was scandalously neglected through Clinton's two terms in office, despite repeated warnings from high-powered and able blue-chip commissions led by the likes of former director of Central Intelligence John Deutch, his colleague Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and former Sens. Warren Rudman, a Republican, and Gary Hart, a Democrat. However, it is also grimly clear that in the months after Bush took office, he took absolutely no effective action to ward off these looming problems and the measures he did undertake arguably made them worse.

Within just over two years of inheriting the healthy budgetary surpluses, he is already projecting a record deficit in the federal budget for the coming fiscal year. He and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld poured resources into anti-ballistic missile programs but fought against allocating anything extra to counter-terrorism intelligence and measures until al Qaida terrorists hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and slew more than 3,000 people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Sept. 9, less than 48 hours before those attacks, Rumsfeld told senators on Capitol Hill that he would advise Bush to veto their efforts to move $600 million from ABM development to fund desperately needed counter-terrorism measures.

Now, the shock and horror of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and her seven-person crew Saturday morning throw new, ominous shadows over the basic competence of the Bush team.

As was the case with counter-terrorism, the underfunded Army or all economic measures except deregulation and tax cuts, Bush and his senior officials appear to have approached manned space policy with a passive and stagnant complacency through the first half of his presidential term.

It was very clear that the space shuttle fleet was wildly uneconomic to operate at a billion dollars per flight and that it was very old. Safety and maintenance problems had multiplied with it over the past two years and general budgetary pressures were having a very discernible impact upon safety margins in the conduct of operations. The rest of NASA was little, if any better. The agency's batting average in losing ambitious deep space probes to Mars and other targets costing up to a billion dollars apiece had gotten steadily worse during the previous decade.

Yet Bush, his senior officials and their hallelujah chorus of tame media pundits never tired of citing the space program as another sign of the continued upward and onward vitality of American life.

The reality was far, far different. Bush selected as his new chief administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sean O'Keefe to replace the media- and Congress-savvy, but otherwise-disastrous Dan Golden. But in a pattern eerily consistent with his complacency in keeping on Clinton's choices to run the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bush made no move to actually restructure NASA or assess its cost-effectiveness and safety track record.

Many conscientious public servants within NASA or monitoring it had such concerns — and expressed them. But they got no thanks for their efforts.

On Bush's watch, the agency fired five out of nine members of its key advisory safety board right after they issued an outspoken report about the looming safety dangers in space shuttle operations. A sixth member of that board, retired three-star Adm. Bernard Kauderer, resigned in angry protest in support of his colleagues.

Through all of this, the reaction from the White House was hear no evil and see no evil. Even an astonishingly outspoken and detailed personal letter sent to the president on Aug. 25, 2000, from Don Nelson, a retired senior NASA engineer who had helped design the shuttle, listing the vast list of problems and warning of the inevitability of a catastrophic accident was fobbed off with terse contempt by the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House in a brief reply just six weeks before the Columbia plunged to its terrible destruction.

This track record is neither impressive nor reassuring. None of the skill and energy that goes into White House spin control spilled over into reassessing manned space flight operations or just making them more safe, even though there were many spelled out, documented: practical and cost-effective ways in which this could easily have been done. (Nelson, in his Aug. 25 letter, urged a moratorium on shuttle flights until the astronauts could all be launched in individual, sealed escape capsules within the spaceship which they would only leave when safely in orbit, and which they would re-enter for the re-entry process.)

Instead, the aging Columbia shuttle soared into the heavens, bringing its seven crew members to a hideous end, comparable to the one that afflicted the voyagers on the Challenger shuttle almost exactly 17 years before. Nothing, it seemed, had been learned. Or, rather, everything that had been learned at so painful a cost had already been forgotten.

As the United States faces the likelihood of a full-scale war with Iraq that could spill across the Arab world, and as the terrorists of al Qaida remain at large, dreaming of launching more monstrous attacks upon the American people, the nation cannot afford any more such lessons in complacency and incompetence.

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