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THE VIEQUES REALITIES



Published: Thu, August 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: President Bush, who is determined to expand the Republican Party's appeal to Hispanics, has a pretty shrewd sense of how to do it: appointing Latinos to high-level jobs, stressing his warm relations with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and raising the possibility of offering legal status to many illegal immigrants.

But no action by his administration has been quite as transparent as his decision to stop the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for military training. As a political tactic, however, this choice may turn out to be a dud. And as a military decision, it's worse.

Civil disobedience: His move obviously accords with sentiment on Vieques, whose residents voted by more than two-to-one Sunday to demand the Navy's departure -- but they want the exercises to end immediately, not in 2003 as Bush has announced. The Navy plans to resume maneuvers this week despite the outcome. Local activists vow to respond with civil disobedience, in which Bush is sure to be portrayed as a villain, not a savior.

More important, though, is the matter of replacing one of the military's most valuable assets. In his rush to do the smart political thing, the president took the sunny view that "the Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises." But he doesn't seem to know where that should be.

The Navy has described the facility as "the crown jewel of live-fire, combined arms training." A presidential panel appointed by President Bill Clinton could find no site anywhere with the potential to provide what Vieques has furnished. The Navy has already concluded it can't use 222,000 acres in South Texas as a successor.

But the administration needs to figure out, without delay, where the Navy is going. If there are alternatives, they need to be identified soon, so the infrastructure can be created to accommodate this vital military need. If none can be found, the administration ought to consider staying at Vieques -- and buying out those residents who don't want to live near a bombing range, just as it would buy out homeowners in the path of an interstate highway.

Statehood: That would be more generous than what the military does for many other Americans who live near live-fire facilities. The resistance to the Navy's presence in Puerto Rico may be understandable, but it's not likely to help those who think the island ought to become the 51st state.

A president can't ignore political reality, but neither can he let it override military necessity. Where will the Pentagon go to give its fighting forces the training they need to survive and win in battle? That's a question that should have been answered before the decision was made on Vieques, not after.




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