Kamiya: Why Bush's Star Wars plan may make America a more dangerous place. Plus: Introducing Bush League: Meet the commissioners who'll save Social Security. And who's sucking up, Fleischer or Bruni?

Published May 2, 2001 1:13PM (EDT)

Shoot Star Wars to the moon, Alice!

Wishful thinking is one thing, expensive wishful thinking is something else, and illogical expensive wishful thinking is something else again. But when you get to dangerous illogical expensive wishful thinking, you're out beyond Pluto with George W. Bush's Star Wars plan -- where half-baked dreams of national invulnerability roar impressively into the stratosphere and completely miss their target!

Star Wars was moronic the first time around, and its IQ has not improved over the years. We've spent $60 billion on this fantasy since Ronald Reagan, who apparently gleaned his knowledge of rocket science from repeated viewings of "Mars Needs Women," rolled it out, and the only sound of destroyed missiles you hear is that of fireworks hissing on the Fourth of July as they plunge into the Olympic-size swimming pools of aerospace-industry contractors. Oh, there was a successful anti-missile test in 1984, but as Frances Fitzgerald points out in "Way Out There in the Blue," that happened only after we turned the target missile on its side to make it look bigger and heated it up. And if you think that Saddam will turn his missiles on their sides, I've got some brilliant pebbles I'd like to sell you.

Of course, it's always possible that Star Wars will work one day -- new technology in which winged monkeys are trained to blast at supersonic speeds out of Donald Rumsfeld's uptilted derriere is said to be promising. But it will cost an inconceivable amount of money to get there, if we ever do -- and in the meantime, we may have triggered a vicious arms race, stirred up terrorists and furthered the impression among friends and enemies alike that we are an arrogant bully.

It would also inspire more confidence if the Bush administration did not make a major foreign-affairs blunder every week. Just a day after Bush scored diplomatic points by consulting with allies as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin before rolling out his national missile defense plan, his Defense Department embarrassed itself by announcing it was breaking off military contacts with China, in a memo issued under Secretary Rumsfeld's name. Hours later, red-faced officials reversed the policy and said the memo had been issued in error. The Bush administration's repeated habit of shooting itself in the foot on foreign policy -- invoking nonexistent "agreements" with North Korea, repudiating the Kyoto protocols on the eve of a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, authorizing the bombing of Iraq without being fully briefed -- is apparently the consequence of not really believing that other countries in the world actually exist.

The most striking thing about Bush's Star Wars plan is that it won't defend against the threats America is most likely to face. In his recent book "Six Nightmares," former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake observes that the greatest danger to America in the new century is not strong states launching missiles, but fanatics from weak states carrying suitcases filled with biochemical weapons. We can no more absolutely prevent such hit-and-run attacks than we can prevent drugs from coming into the country. Considering this, we'd be better off spending our Star Wars gazillions on upgrading America's conventional military to meet more likely threats, and on foreign aid, assistance to international economic and humanitarian groups, and in other ways that would actually make the world a safer place. Focusing on the structural causes of world instability -- mediating disputes, twisting arms, handing out carrots, addressing income inequality, and so on -- would be a better long-term security strategy than retreating into an illusory Fortress America that would not provide protection from terrorist attacks in any case.

In fact, the National Missile Defense plan will give those who hate us additional cause -- because it puffs out our already-swollen chest unnecessarily. What could be more infuriating to the fanatics in Iran or Afghanistan or Sudan or Libya than a United States that is not only the world's greatest offensive military power, but boasts that it is invulnerable to missile attack?

But making the world a safer place for all, not just the U.S., is apparently too long-range, too strategic a concept for Bush -- plus, it would involve "nation-building," diplomacy, building mutual trust and various other postures he and the machos in his administration deem too humiliating for the world's Big Kahuna. Seduced by a dream of total invulnerability, he is prepared to trash the 1972 ABM treaty, fling overboard the venerable doctrine of deterrence, which has kept the world from a holocaust for half a century, and plunge into completely uncharted territory.

That territory is dangerous. Bush has moved to reassure the Russians, saying, "Today, Russia is not our enemy." To his credit, he has said he seeks deep reductions in our nuclear missile arsenal. And Rumsfeld said that it's time to abandon "Cold War think." But actions speak louder than words, and the rest of the world would be more likely to believe that the U.S. was truly interested in moving beyond the Cold War if its leaders were not triumphalist America-firsters. It is a bit hard to reassure your long-time adversaries that you intend them no harm when even as you speak you are donning a suit of armor emblazoned with the ancestral slogan "What America wants, America gets!"

So there is a strong possibility that a nervous Russia will respond with a new missile buildup. The situation with China, whose vast size and resources, autocratic leaders, strident nationalism and growing anti-Americanism make it perhaps America's greatest strategic threat, is even more troubling. China's response to NMD on Wednesday -- that the plan may trigger an arms race -- was completely predictable, but that makes it no less ominous. As former National Security Council director Jane Wales has pointed out, China currently relies on a very modest deterrent strategy: It has only about 20 missiles that are capable of hitting the U.S. By moving to a national missile defense, she argues, we would force them to change their nuclear strategy. "That change would not be for the better; we couldn't invent a nuclear relationship that is more desirable, or more stable than the one we have now."

What of the "rogue states" -- North Korea, Iran, Iraq? The prospect of an irrational state, consumed with hatred of the United States, launching a suicidal missile attack against us remains the single strongest argument for Star Wars. But there is little reason to believe that leaders of rogue states will choose to doom themselves and their nations with a missile attack. Much more likely is a strategy of stealthy terrorism -- which, of course, all the anti-missile shields in the world won't prevent.

Deterrence has worked, but it is a painful doctrine -- cynical and spiritually destructive. For all its flaws, however, it has kept the nuclear peace -- and it is frighteningly unclear what Bush wants to replace it with. At this point, it seems most likely that he simply wants to establish total military supremacy -- what we might call the doctrine of Benevolent American Omnipotence. This gladdens the hearts of conservatives, and has an undeniable popular attraction: Who doesn't like to imagine a world where America is always the Harlem Globetrotters and our enemies are the hapless Washington Generals? Alas, reality isn't like that. Not everyone perceives America as benevolent -- in fact, the more omnipotent we appear, the more we are resented. Until Bush and the American right come to terms with the heretical fact that God's Country isn't God, America is likely to face more danger, not less, from its enemies.

-- Gary Kamiya

Bush league

Judging by his appointees to the Social Security Reform Commission, the president is sweating to get public relations points for bipartisanship. Its 14 members and two chairmen -- one of them is former New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- include an even number of Democrats and Republicans, and a handful of Gore contributors. But before Bush takes his bows for playing nice with Democrats, he may have to acknowledge that "bipartisan" isn't the same thing as objective on the issue.

Commission appointee Sam Beard, for example, passes the bipartisan test, with experience as a staffer for Bobby Kennedy and $8,000 in donations to Democratic candidates over the last three years, including $1,000 to Gore. But Beard is also the founder and president of Economic Security 2000, a "nonpartisan, grassroots, educational organization" that has been a strong advocate of partial privatization as a way to extend the life of Social Security.

Like Beard, commission appointee and former World Bank economist Estelle James is a Democrat. She's also been a booster of the partial privatization of Social Security, insisting that the program needs a major attitude adjustment to survive. In 1998, James said that Social Security needs "a change from the old traditional pay-as-you-go, defined-benefit type of Social Security system to a system that includes more funding, more individual accounts and a close link between benefits and contributions is good for the economy."

Democrat Olivia Mitchell, a professor at Wharton, brings a Bush-friendly view of Social Security to the commission as well. Having served as the former co-chair of the 1994-96 Social Security Advisory Council's technical panel on retirement savings, Mitchell embraced the notion of privatization. In a 1996 paper she coauthored with Boston College economics professor Joseph Quinn, Mitchell concludes that the best way to save Social Security is to "privatize part of the system, explicitly separating the system's role as a keeper of income adequacy from its role as a pension and savings system."

Tim Penny, former Democratic Minnesota congressman, has been on the front lines in the privatization battle. After leaving Congress in 1994, Penny co-chaired a private sector group called Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization that argues that Social Security should be stripped of its sacred cow status. "Programs for the elderly do not exist in a vacuum," reads a statement on a Web page devoted to the organization. "Social Security cannot achieve financial stability at the expense of other parts of the budget or the economy." Penny is now a senior fellow at the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, and has steadily argued that more of the functions of Social Security should be shifted into the private sector.

That's been the opinion held by Democrat and commission appointee Fidel Vargas, former mayor of Baldwin Park, Calif. Vargas, who was also part of the 1994-1995 Advisory Council on Social Security, had joined Penny at a congressional hearing in 1998 to press partial privatization as a solution for Social Security's ills.

But a pro-privatization bias may be most evident in the affiliations of commission appointee Robert Pozen. Pozen has put his money where his politics are, donating $1,000 to Gore and $75,000 to the DNC last year. As vice chairman of Fidelity Investments, he can afford to be generous. Though Pozen plans to keep his day job at the company, which manages $444 billion in retirement mutual funds, Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio insists that Pozen's service on the commission is not aimed at getting the Fidelity a bigger market share of American's retirement cash.

"Fidelity does not have a position for or against private accounts," Loporchio said, "and he is not representing the interest of Fidelity on the commission."

The Democratic National Committee has already spammed reporters with the news that commission co-chairman Richard Parsons was Time Warner Inc. president when the firm had to pay $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging it illegally denied pension and health benefits to its workers.

Privatization critics, not surprisingly, said the appointment of Parsons -- now AOL Time Warner's chief operating officer -- sent the wrong message. "If they had their way, they wouldn't have let any of their employees get their pensions, leaving them to rely on Social Security," said Hans Riemer, chairman of the 2030 Center, a public policy group that focuses on issues important to young workers. "And now they want to take that away as well, through privatization."

-- Alicia Montgomery

Daily line

"The commission that the president will announce will, of course, be comprised of people who share the president's view that personal retirement accounts are the way to save Social Security."
-- Ari Fleischer, speaking to reporters Tuesday.

Bush buzz

The president seems determined to hammer home his agenda using the same issue-of-the-day formula that got him through the campaign. Before the public has even made up its mind about the proposed missile defense shield, it's suddenly Social Security Reform Day, and Bush plans to name the 14 members of a commission that will study the president's proposals to privatize parts of the entitlement program. In keeping with his theme of bipartisanship, Bush will name liberal legend and former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to lead the commission along with AOL Time Warner chief operating officer Richard Parsons. But critics are already blasting the commission as a panel stacked with rubber-stampers who will affirm the Bush line on privatization, regardless of the facts.

The group will make its recommendations to the president in the fall.

Those who consider Social Security reform an urgent and pressing matter should keep in mind that "appointing a commission" is frequently translated in Washington as "not doing much of anything." Though Social Security reform was one of Bush's top issues during his candidacy, he has not put the same muscle behind it as he has devoted to his pet issue, tax cuts. Bush was ready to declare victory on that front Monday afternoon when congressional Republicans sent him a $1.35 trillion compromise on his tax cut plan. "This is a great day for the American people and the American taxpayer," the president said in a speech. The plan calls for $1.25 trillion in tax cuts from 2002 to 2011 and $100 billion in short-term cuts slated for 2001 to 2002.

But there are still plenty of opportunities for it to get derailed in Congress. Left for later are details like the marriage penalty and exactly what form that $100 billion short-term cut would take. Some conservatives believe that the administration was too quick to take the deal and give up Bush's original plan for a $1.6 trillion cut.

Also don't miss: Actor Michael Douglas is adding his name to the Hollywood Bush-busters, blasting John Bolton, the president's nominee for undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. On his own Web site, Douglas calls Bolton's hire a giant step backward because of his opposition to major arms control treaties, and appeals to his fans to e-mail their complaints to the White House.

Wednesday: The president announces the members of his Social Security Reform Commission, gets his picture taken with the RespecTeen national youth group and meets with Macedonian President Boris Trajkozski.

-- A.M.

Suck-up watch

While meeting with Washington Post executive editor Len Downie and managing editor Steve Coll, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer complained about the often prickly prose of Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank. Whose work does Fleisher actually like? According to the story, "Fleischer has held up New York Times writer Frank Bruni as more to his liking."

-- A.M.

It's all Grecian to me

What a difference a day makes. Maybe the French won't spike President Bush's cafe au lait with arsenic when he finally makes his European debut. And British Prime Minister Tony Blair probably won't serve him beef at his first state dinner at 10 Downing Street, either.

On Tuesday, London's Fleet Street was all but heralding a nuclear holocaust as President Bush stated his intention to move forward with a Son of Star Wars missile defense system. But as Wednesday's editorials in fishwrap across Europe show, whether people like it or not, Bush is successfully taking his "uniter not a divider" message across the Big Pond -- at least to some.

In a lead editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger calls on his European colleagues to cool off their heels. "Only a few months ago," he writes, "politicians here were outraged to learn that Washington was serious about plans to build a missile defense shield to foil attacks from rogue states. They predicted all sorts of disasters: a new arms race, America barricading itself in and abandoning its partners to an unsafe world, an upset to an unsafe world, an upset to the strategic arms balance."

But those cries of rage came before the announcement, before Bush disarmed his opponents by offering them a role in the project, that he would also link the deployment of a missile defense with a reduction of the American nuclear arsenal and bring the Russians into the loop. And it was before German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said his country would be willing to "further discuss" the issue with the Bush administration in a possible cooperative effort with Europe.

"Ironically," Frankenberger writes, "former bitter opponents of the concept of nuclear deterrence suddenly seemed to be its most enthusiastic supporters. Now that George W. Bush has more or less made it official by announcing that his administration will implement its plans for a missile defense, there is no longer any sign of European outrage."

"If Mr. Bush means what he says and does what he promises, there is no reason to ring the alarm bells," he concludes. So was the European media jusst full of rhetorical hot air when it took Bush to task on the eve of his announcement? Hardly. The pluralism of opinions coming out of the European media are reflective of the split between liberals and conservatives on the Continent, with the former eager to dish up whatever red meat it can find on the new president and the latter finding themselves somewhat sympathetic of the policies he proposes. Of course, European centrist conservatism ala The Economist seems to have more in common with Silicon Valley progressive politics than the Bible Belt fundamentalism that has reemerged as an eminent force in Washington -- and that's an important qualifier.

The Tories at the conservative Times of London argue: "Britons too should see Mr Bush's challenge to think forward, not back, in a context wider than missile defense. Technologies such as space-based sensors, quantum computer processing and 'intelligent' unmanned aircraft are about to transform the battlefield. They will open out military options not just for NATO, but for its potential adversaries. ... The US is embarking on a surge of scientific innovation that will advance this transformation by years. No nation that is serious about defending itself, or projecting power, or even being in the forefront of science, can afford not to be part of it."

This day in Bush history

May 2, 1997: The Clinton administration rejected Texas' plan to privatize its welfare system, after Catholic Charities and a coalition of advocates for the poor opposed it. Electronic Data Systems and Lockheed Martin had been named as prospective bidders for the Texas project. Karen Hughes, spokeswoman for Gov. Bush, said he was disappointed at receiving "typical Washington doublespeak ... The meeting was a charade."

Rant: Cheney's inner oilman

Throughout the presidential campaign, Bush routinely pounded Al Gore for lacking a coherent energy policy. Vice President Dick Cheney outlined that strategy Monday for the new administration: more drilling and mining. Cheney officially declared the nation in the throes of an energy crisis, and dismissed calls for a truly conservative policy: increased conservation.

"The aim here is efficiency, not austerity," Cheney said. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

The green lobby immediately reacted Tuesday, with the Sierra Club singling out a new bill, introduced by a bipartisan coalition of Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that could eliminate the need for more drilling. The bill would force automakers to increase fuel-efficiency standards in new cars. "By raising the 'corporate average fuel economy' standard for SUVs, pickups and minivans from the current low of 20.7 miles per gallon to 27.5 mpg, this bill will save 1 million barrels of oil every day -- three times more oil than we could get from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," said Sierra Club spokeswoman Ann Mesnikoff. "President Bush is poised to introduce an energy policy based on drilling, digging and destroying our environment. We need policies that move us to a cleaner energy future, not backward to more pollution."

Instead, Cheney called for new exploration of domestic energy sources. And if Bush adopts the commission's recommendations -- is there really any doubt? -- guess who would be among those profiting big time from the new oil exploration, using the "new technologies" Cheney extolled? That's right -- Halliburton Inc., Cheney's former employer and the world's largest oil services company.

Though Cheney's comments made front-page news across the country, it was hardly a news flash. They seem to solidify a pair of early impressions of the Bush administration: A) This is an administration by, of and for the oil and gas industries. B) When it comes to laying out the details, the administration sends out Dick Cheney.

The explanation has become boilerplate for almost any Bush story dealing with the environment or energy. The administration continues to bury its thumb in the collective eye of environmentalists who accuse the administration of exploiting California's electricity woes to pay back their contributors in the energy and mining industries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, oil and gas interests ponied up $25.5 million for Republicans during the last election cycle, compared with just over $6 million for Democrats. The only candidate to receive more money from the industry than Bush and former Rep. Rick Lazio was Spencer Abraham, who is now Bush's secretary of energy.

Certainly, the power crisis out West has been good business for many energy producers. As federal regulators refuse to step in to help energy-starved consumers in California, the wallets of energy producers continue to bulge. Calpine's earnings jumped to $94.8 million in the first three months of the year, compared with $18.1 million in the same period last year. In their most recent earnings reports, energy wholesalers like Dynegy Inc. and Enron -- the biggest giver of the energy companies -- have also seen healthy profit gains. Enron's sales increased nearly four times that of the previous quarter.

Whether this pro-industry policy will have any real political fallout remains to be seen. Already, many moderate Republicans have quietly and gingerly distanced themselves from the administration. And increasingly, Democrats are staking out their positions on environmental protection to paint Bush as an industry hack.

But Bush continues, unrepentant, a true child of the oil industry. Ironically, on the same day that his vice president was fanning partisan flames by calling for more oil drilling, the president himself was heralding the virtues of bipartisanship at a White House lunch to celebrate his first 100 days in office. But of the 260 Democrats invited, only 50 attended.

-- Anthony York

The lowdown: Reading the tabs

President Bush's crack team of advisors has undermined a sinister plot against the president, according to the Weekly World News. According to this week's edition, "White House security personnel have reportedly booted a young female intern off the staff after discovering she was a mole planted by the Democrats -- on a mission to seduce President George W. Bush!"

Of course, the tabloid reports, the "mystery woman's name has not been revealed," and the incident has been "hushed up"; the News cites "administration sources" and a "high-level Republican Party source" who claim the Democrats were "hoping to create a Monica Lewinsky-type scandal and unseat Bush."

It quotes a "White House insider" as saying the intern "was very flirtatious, always flashing a lot of cleavage and thigh." For that she gets fired? Hardly seems like compassionate conservatism.

After the alleged intern made a crack about presidential kneepads, the nefarious plot began to unravel. "The intern reportedly confessed that she had been sent to 'boink' the President by Democratic operatives, who dubbed the mission Operation Bushwhack. But she couldn't or wouldn't name the people who put her up to it," the tabloid reports.

But Operation Bushwhack never stood a chance, according to yet another unnamed source. "Unlike his predecessor, President Bush is a person of high moral caliber and deeply committed to his marriage," the source said. "Also, his personal relationship with Jesus Christ is incredibly important to him. This kind of ploy would never have worked."

-- A.Y.

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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