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War games
The presidentís partisan execution of the war on terrorism is cynicism at its worst

IN THIS WEEKíS issue of the Phoenix, 33 writers offer up their thoughts about going to war with Iraq. With a few exceptions, most of our writers firmly believe that war with Iraq ó for any reason ó is a bad idea. This differs from the Phoenixís own editorializing on the topic (see "Whereís the Proof?", Editorial, October 11). Nevertheless, the ideas expressed on these pages represent various positions in a public debate that should have taken place ó but has not.

From the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam, the political leaders of this country and its citizens have engaged in fierce, passionate debate over the pros and cons of engaging in warfare. But that hasnít happened with the current build-up to war with Iraq. The president deftly exercised his "youíre either for us or against us" rhetoric in campaigning for the midterm elections, resulting in a historic electoral victory that is rightly viewed as a mandate for the presidentís prosecution of the war on terrorism. But the demonizing of Democrats that took place in the presidentís politicking for war demonstrated a cynicism about this country we just havenít seen before. This isnít just shameful. Itís divisive and calls the presidentís motives ó as he plots to expand the war on terrorism from Afghanistan to Iraq ó into question.

When the president sent his Homeland Security Act to Congress in June, it contained a provision that would ban employees from the new Homeland Security Department from belonging to a union. Senate Democrats understandably refused to take action on the bill until this section ó which had nothing to do with national security ó was removed. In a masterful stroke of opinion manipulation that was Clintonian in its execution, the Republicans successfully portrayed the Democrats as toadies of the AFL-CIO. Writing for Slate, Joe Klein had this to say one week after the midterm elections: "It was the Democratic Partyís obeisance to its special interests ó specifically, to the public employees unions, the trial lawyers, and the AARP ó that helped lose the election. Organized labor forced the partyís disastrously witless position against the homeland security bill."

It may have been witless for the Democrats to fail to explain that they were defending public-employee unions that had been attacked in Bushís homeland-security bill ó and not trying to win concessions on the unionsí behalf. It was surely witless to fail to point out that it was Bush who had politicized the Homeland Security Act in the first place by using it to gut worker protections. And the Democratsí failure to ask what union-busting has to do with national security is inexcusable. But none of this erases the fact that Bush politicized the war on terrorism in the first place in sickening partisan fashion.

The anti-union provisions in the Homeland Security Act signed into law by the president on Monday were eased somewhat: public-employee unions will be able to bargain on behalf of workers, though many of their employment protections have been stripped away and the federal government can fire employees at will. But it turns out that union- busting was just the tip of the GOP-pork iceberg. In a sop to pharmaceutical companies, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, spent $16 million on issue advertising in the final days of the midterm elections (benefiting Republicans almost exclusively), a provision was added to the bill that would give drug manufacturers who once used mercury in vaccines immunity from civil lawsuits. Several class-action suits brought by parents of autistic children who believe their children became ill via mercury poisoning from vaccines are now moot thanks to that pork rider attached to the Homeland Security Act.

But thatís not all. Another provision allows companies that have moved offshore (to sidestep federal taxes) to do business with the federal government. Yet another guarantees that Texas A&M University (not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, or MIT, but ... Texas A&M) will be awarded a big chunk of Homeland Security research money. What do any of these provisions have to do with national security? Nothing. They are in the bill because the president sees nothing wrong with leveraging the nationís fear over future terrorist attacks for domestic political gain.

Even worse than all this, though, is the presidentís willingness to back a conservative social policy to the detriment of the Armed Forcesí ability to do their jobs. The continued employment of Clintonís disastrous "donít ask, donít tell, donít pursue" policy to drum homosexuals from the Armed Forces leaves us speechless. This month it was widely reported that the Army has discharged nine linguists studying at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey. The reason? They are gay. Six of them speak Arabic. US military and intelligence agencies face a critical shortage of such specialists. As the New Republic reported in its November 18 issue, a study by the Government Accounting Office showed that military and intelligence agencies "failed to fill all their jobs" requiring knowledge of Arabic. Such failure, the study concluded, has "compromised U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism, and diplomatic efforts." As Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank put it so succinctly in remarks to a House committee considering the Intelligence Authorization Act: "I understand that anti-gay prejudice gets a certain leeway here ... but to put it ahead of national security seems to me excessive."

Grotesque is more like it. Mark Bingham was one of the passengers believed to have fought back against terrorists on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, thus preventing the plane from reaching whatever destination the hijackers had in mind. Itís unlikely that the other passengers Bingham joined that day cared that he was gay. And itís doubtful that Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, a man who once referred to the militaryís ban on homosexuals as an "old chestnut," care about the sexual orientation of linguists employed in the war against terrorism. We can be sure that the president doesnít really believe the "donít ask, donít tell" policy is necessary from a national-security point of view. But Bush surely appreciates its need from a political point of view. The presidentís willingness to put a conservative social policy ahead of national security is partisan politicking at its worst.

The memory of September 11 and fear over the possibility of future attacks gave the GOP victory in the midterm elections. Continuing to use the war on terrorism to foist a conservative agenda upon a terrified American public will eventually backfire, and rightly so.

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Issue Date: November 28 - December 5, 2002
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