After allowing his Republican friends in Congress to spend without restraint for four years-fearing no veto-George W. Bush took official notice of the federal deficit on Dec. 20. The President warned that from now on, he will “maintain strict discipline in spending tax dollars” with the aim of cutting the $500 billion annual deficit by half within five years.
“We will submit a budget that fits the times. It will provide every tool and resource to the military, will protect the homeland and meet other priorities of the government,” he explained.
The President will reveal further details when he sends his 2006 budget message to the Capitol next February, although the intention has been clear since last spring. What we can anticipate is the usual slashing of domestic programs. This conservative pattern dates back to the Reagan era: spend big on the military and tax breaks for the wealthy, then cut back on school lunches, Medicaid, veterans’ health care and clean water.
Soon we’ll be hearing sonorous speeches from Republican leaders-including Mr. Bush himself, no doubt-about all the “wasteful spending” they so fervently oppose.
Such declarations would be more credible if only these politicians could curb their profligate enthusiasm for missile defense-a truly wasteful program that proved again last week how badly this government manages our money and our security.
In case anyone missed the news, the latest test staged by the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency concluded in an embarrassing failure on Dec. 15. The target rocket launched on schedule from Alaska, but the interceptor rocket never left its pad in the Marshall Islands for their planned rendezvous in space. The cause, according to the Missile Defense Agency, was “an unknown anomaly,” which in plain English means that the Pentagon, after spending roughly $100 billion over the past two decades on this system, has no idea why it still doesn’t work.
According to newspaper reports, the test had been postponed several times due to “bad weather,” so apparently we must hope that our enemies choose a nice sunny day to attack. In fact, the interceptor hadn’t been tested for two years, because the previous test in December 2002 was also a disastrous failure. On that occasion, the “kill vehicle” didn’t separate from the booster rocket, missed the target by hundreds of miles and finally incinerated in the earth’s atmosphere.
There are many sound scientific and technical reasons why this particular version of missile defense may never function as advertised, no matter how many staged experiments are performed. Previous tests have been carefully rigged by placing a homing beacon on the target, by launching the target repeatedly along the same course, and by programming complete information about the timing and trajectory of the target to the interceptor. The enemy not only has to attack on a sunny day, but they had better tell us exactly when and how, too.
Even if the Pentagon’s engineers can someday launch an interceptor rocket that meets an incoming target, the enemy missile is likely to deploy simple countermeasures that can divert the “kill vehicle.” Missile defense isn’t nearly ready for realistic testing, and won’t be for years, if ever.
But the President and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have long ignored those discouraging facts and insisted that they would “deploy” the system before the end of Mr. Bush’s first term. To fulfill that pledge, the Pentagon recently installed six interceptor missiles in Fairbanks, Alaska. The purpose is obviously symbolic, since they can’t actually shoot down an enemy missile. (Incidentally, there are cheaper ways to cope with North Korean nuclear missiles-like destroying them on the launch pad as soon as they’re erected.)
Yet the President plans to continue this bizarre pretense-at an estimated cost of $55 billion-by further bloating the missile-defense budget each year between now and 2010. When he starts cutting domestic programs next year, remember that he will be spending billions more on missiles that don’t fly.
Jack Newfield’s death deprives New York City of one of its most loyal and passionate sons, while American journalism has lost one of its most innovative and gifted reporters. Jack stood out in his generation, during an era of great journalistic creativity, by writing a new kind of investigative advocacy that combined forensic skill with sharp political insight. He came of age as a writer during the 1960’s, and his substantial literary legacy includes two of the very best books about that decade. The commitments he made then-to racial equality, social justice and peace on earth-remained central to his life.
Jack was far too young in years, mind and spirit to be taken from us now. Having learned from him since before we met in 1978, I am only one of many friends, colleagues and readers who will mourn this extraordinary man.