Rumsfeld's space invasion; Robert Redford brushes off Bush secretary.

Published May 15, 2001 1:01AM (EDT)

Rant: Preparing for carnage at zero G

So far, if you follow the coverage, the Bush administration's plan to put a "Star Wars"-style missile defense system on the fast track has claimed one big victim -- the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pushes hard for a new military strategy built around defense against threats from outer space, a larger casualty is being widely ignored: the precious ideal of space as a demilitarized zone.

One of the most potent elements of the 1960s Space Age gospel was a vision of outer space as a preserve of peace. And it wasn't just pipe-dream idealism. After all, hadn't our space program been explicitly pursued as a civilian enterprise? Didn't the U.S. and its Cold War opponent find ground for cooperation in their space programs even during the peak of their rivalry? Hadn't the U.S., along with scores of other countries, signed a treaty in 1967 that demilitarizes the moon and other "celestial bodies" and bars the stationing of nuclear or other "weapons of mass destruction" in space?

Our first glimpse of the globe from space underscored the arbitrariness and artificiality of the political boundaries we draw on maps. With that picture etched in our imaginations, we could think of the leap into space as the first step away from the disastrous mess we've too often made of our own planet. The last thing you'd want was to let the horrors of terrestrial war making spill over into this new, vast, pristine realm. Who would shoulder the awful responsibility of starting a space-based arms race?

Apparently, Rumsfeld. The Bush administration is tantalized by what its policymakers see as a historic opportunity to seize the latest version of the "high ground." Just as policymakers at the turn of the 20th century sought to control the high seas, and just as World War II-era leaders focused their efforts on controlling the skies, today's defense policy hawks -- following through on Reagan-era "high-frontier" rhetoric -- want the U.S. to grab a dominant military position in space before any rival can.

That would make more sense if there were some rival out there capable of challenging the United States. Today, however, our former adversaries in Russia can't even afford to keep their antiquated satellites aloft and have taken to accepting payloads of wealthy Americans to fund their space shots.

Our new space-based defense strategy is aimed at saving us from the threat of "rogue nations" taking potshots at U.S. cities. To date, though, there isn't a rogue nation out there -- not North Korea, not Iraq, not Libya -- that has the technical wherewithal to launch a missile against a U.S. city or the financial wherewithal to develop one. "Rogues" are shockingly low-tech -- they're much more likely to try to smuggle a bomb in a suitcase. Try stopping that with a satellite-borne laser.

To date, Rumsfeld's efforts have been confined to a bureaucratic reorganization of responsibility for space defense. The secretary says his strategy is all about deterrence and that no firm decisions have been made to deploy weapons in space. But when that day comes, as looks increasingly likely, we will look back at this month's policy shifts as the first fateful step toward carnage at zero G.

-- Scott Rosenberg


Bush offered further evidence Friday about why he avoids formal press conferences. In his fourth solo outing, he was fine for the first few moments, with hardly a pause in his opening remarks. But the remaining 26 minutes were torture, plagued by Bush's determination to stay on message, even when that message had nothing to do with the question.

The low point of the press conference, however, was the misplaced grin that came onto Bushs face when asked the following question:

"Mr. President, you would not equate the baby that was killed in retaliatory Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip with the 13- and 14-year-old Jewish boys, one of them a U.S. citizen, who were tied up, beaten to death and mutilated near Tekoa, would you?

At this point, the president chuckled. "I was kind of smiling," Bush explained, "it sounded kind of like an editorial." Shortly after, the president straightened his face and replied, "But the death in the Middle East is abhorrent, and our nation weeps when people lose their lives."

Then, there was his "Rain Man"-style repetition: Bush uttered the term "tax relief" 11 times during the conference, though he never received a single question about his tax cut package. It was his handy response to pesky queries about souring energy prices.

  • "Tax relief will be good for our economy. But tax relief is also a very important way to help deal with high energy prices."
  • "But the quickest way to get money in people's pockets to deal with prices is tax relief."
  • "Let's get the tax relief done and do it quickly."
  • "But the clearest way to get things done quickly is tax relief."
  • "The quickest way to help people with their energy bills is tax relief. That is the quickest, surest way to do so."
  • "But, for certain, what needs to happen is additional refining capacity, as well as tax relief."
  • "To the Congress, who is interested in helping consumers pay high gas prices, pass the tax relief as quickly as possible."
  • "To anybody who wants to figure out how to help the consumers, pass the tax relief package as quickly as possible."
  • "I am doing what I think is the right thing to do. And the right thing to do is to -- is to have proposed a tax relief package that is an integral part of a fiscal policy that makes sense."
  • "Now there's a budget in place, $1.25 trillion of tax relief, coupled with $100 billion of immediate stimulus that's now available."

    Other favorite Bush solutions to rising energy costs were to "build more refining capacity," "develop more refining capacity," "build more refining capacity," and/or "expand refining capacity." In other exchanges about energy, Bush also insisted that "We need more supply. We need to meet the increasing demands with better supply;" that America should "increase the supply," and the best solution to current energy problems was to "increase supply."

    -- Alicia Montgomery

    Daily line

    "Energy is a problem that my administration will address. This week, we will introduce a comprehensive energy plan to help bring new supplies of energy to the market, and we will be encouraging Americans to use more wisely the energy supplies that exist today."
    -- President Bush during his Saturday radio address

    Bush buzz

    The long-awaited Bush energy plan will be released Thursday, and the administration has a lot riding on its success. And its success will depend on the ability of unofficial energy czar Vice President Cheney to sell the plan to the public. While Cheney initially derided conservationists as deluded flower children, the administration's line on conservation has softened significantly in recent days, with the president making it the dominant theme of his weekly radio address. Critics of the plan say the conservation sweet talk covers up a sweetheart deal for energy producers, and wonder why a Republican administration won't trust the marketplace to correct energy supplies without government interference.

    While the administration has completed most of the work on the plan, the White House is still struggling to make the process look fair and open. That's not an easy task when it has kept the list of 130 participating interest groups and businesses away from the public and Congress.

    Still, Bush wants everyone to know that organized labor had a spot at the table. He and Cheney will hold a meeting Monday with the Teamsters and other labor groups. Some union officials have been more supportive of Bush's stated energy goals, particularly drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, than other Democratic constituencies have been. Those on the left believe that this White House meeting is a transparent attempt to drive a wedge between labor and environmental forces in the Democratic Party.

    Meanwhile, nervous Republicans, particularly in California, want Bush to stop focusing primarily on long-term solutions when their short-term survival in the 2002 elections is at stake. With gas prices set to break the $3 mark in some areas of the country this summer, ordinary Americans seem unsatisfied with the president's reluctance to cut the federal gas tax or impose other price controls. Furthermore, Bush's big policy risks on energy and the missile defense system, some in the GOP worry, will give Republican candidates little to run on and a lot to explain.

    The FBI has plenty of explaining to do after forcing a delay in the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After years of periodically plaguing the Clinton administration, the FBI has now become Bush's problem, and leaders from both parties want the White House to order a top-down review of the agency's practices.

    Attorney General John Ashcroft's religious practices have angered some civil libertarians. Ashcroft has made a morning prayer meeting for Justice Department employees a regular part of his daily schedule. While no one has been compelled to attend the meetings, some among the department's staff believe that they create an appearance of favoritism based on religious beliefs.

    Those more concerned with administration favoritism based on cash will be watching as business interests try to trade their support for a minimum-wage hike for billions of dollars in corporate welfare in the final budget agreement. After laying low during congressional negotiations over the tax cut at the Bushies' request, business interests will come roaring back this week to make sure that the budget's fine print aids their bottom lines.

    That prospect is likely to steel the determination of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to press his campaign finance reform legislation through the House. The president's once and future rival told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the legislation must get through the House by June or else risk dying during the summer recess. In the meantime, another much-vaunted reform effort has withered under partisan politics and White House inattention. Major efforts to reform the national election process, prompted by the monthlong Florida deadlock between Bush and Al Gore, have not resulted in any solid plan for getting aid to states that want to revamp outmoded voting procedures and equipment, and are likely be put off for several more months.

    And don't miss actor Robert Redford spurning Interior Secretary Gale Norton's starstruck invitation to him to help set free a California condor. Complimenting the actor/director/environmentalist on his movie "Three Days of the Condor," Norton suggested that she and Redford "discuss the best way to conserve America's unspoilt landscapes and the wild creatures who inhabit them" after springing the big bird. Redford responded that he could do more good by actively opposing "the devastating environmental repercussions of the agenda you and President Bush embrace." He also wrote that he was "mystified" by Norton's declaration in her letter that the two of them shared "a common interest" in saving the condor.

    Monday schedule: The president goes to Philadelphia to highlight Project Safe Neighborhood, a national initiative to reduce gun violence. In the afternoon, he gets his picture taken with the WNBA champion Houston Comets. Bush will also meet with selected union leaders to discuss his energy policy.

    -- Alicia Montgomery

    This day in Bush history

    May 14, 1999: Democrats blamed Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the failure of a state hate-crimes law named after James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to his death in Tyler, Texas. Though the bill's proponents succeeded in getting the bill through the Democratic-controlled Texas House, Republicans in the Texas Senate turned back calls for a vote on Thursday. With a Friday midnight deadline looming, Bush wouldn't speak out in favor of the bill, saying only, "I will look at the bill when it makes it to my desk, if it makes it to my desk." It never did.

    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, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

    Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

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