WASHINGTON — Conservative Republicans balked at President Bush’s plan to end six decades of naval training on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island, complaining that he is caving in to protesters and endangering the military.
“We are going to lose lives if we don’t train these people,” said Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah., after a Capitol Hill briefing with top Pentagon officials on the decision to stop bombing and other training exercises by mid-2003.
Added Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.: “We are going to lose other ranges if this range is lost.”
Rep. Bob Stump, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, planned hearings. “This place is irreplaceable. Once you give in to this type of action, we’re inviting trouble in many other cases,” said Stump, R-Ariz.
Hansen said there are 33 ranges in the United States, each with its own opponents. He wondered what the United States should tell countries such as Japan, where the U.S. military has a large presence.
“We won’t bomb on ours but we’ll bomb on yours? It’s a line in the sand,” he said of the idea of bowing to Vieques protesters.
Protesters say years of live fire bombing have destroyed their health and environment. They have pressed for an immediate halt.
“Not one additional bomb or bullet should fall on the island of Vieques,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who was arrested in one of the mass protests to drive out the Navy.
President Bush, speaking in Sweden on Thursday, said, “These are our friends and neighbors, and they don’t want us there.” He said, “The Navy ought to find somewhere else to conduct its exercises.”
In Puerto Rico, Gov. Sila Calderon said she was glad that the exercises would end, “but we deplore that the intention to continue with the military exercises and bombings for two additional years.”
The lawmakers, meantime, heard from Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and Navy Secretary Gordon England.
The two officials want planning to begin now for an end to all exercises there, possibly with appointment of a study panel to look at alternative sites and ways to train to make up for the loss.
House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said the White House and Pentagon “could have a long time ago” started working on an alternative. Gephardt, D-Mo., said he was “sorry that they seem to be putting it off for two years.”
At the Pentagon, officials said Bush’s decision was a big disappointment. They wondered why he the president did not await results of a scheduled November referendum, when residents of the U.S. commonwealth are to vote on the Vieques question.
While White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the decision was based on “the merits,” others charged that the move was a miscalculated attempt to win Hispanic votes.
“President Bush’s announcement is a political attempt to pacify Latinos, since he knows we are the fastest-growing minority in the country and a major voting block,” said Juan Figueroa of the Puerto Rican Defense Fund said.
The Navy, which calls Vieques the “crown jewel” of its Atlantic training sites, has used the island’s bombing range for six decades. It has said repeatedly that the site is vital to national security, uniquely combining the ability to train in land, air and sea maneuvers without interference from civilian air or sea traffic.
On the Net:
Pentagon’s Vieques site: http://www.navyvieques.navy.mil/