Smart Bombs, Dumb War

Who is the biggest threat to world peace in this new year? Hint: He definitely has access to nuclear and chemical weapons but he prefers to do his killing with cruise missiles and other "high-tech" ordnance. While nearly as devastating as the "glamour" weapons of mass destruction, these "conventional" bombs are more acceptable to world opinion. And once he gets it in his head to go to war, it appears nothing nor nobody can sway him.

Yes, most of today's world fears George W. Bush more than Iraq's Saddam Hussein or North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden can only dream of access to the mayhem-dealing resources that are at Dubya's command.

Bush justifies his threat of war with Iraq with claims that Saddam continues to develop nuclear and biological weapons, but Dubya so far refuses to share his evidence with UN inspectors who, on the ground in Iraq, to date have been unable to uncover any outlawed Iraqi weapons programs.

In fact Saddam Hussein's documented use of chemical weapons dates back to the 1980s when he was Washington's ally as a bulwark against Iran. Among the people instrumental in tilting US policy toward Baghdad during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was Donald H. Rumsfeld, now defense secretary. In December 1983 his meeting with Saddam as a presidential envoy paved the way for normalization of US-Iraqi relations, at a time when Iraq was using chemical weapons on an "almost daily" basis in defiance of international conventions.

That was then. Now the Bush administration floats suggestions that Iraq was allied with Al Qaeda, only to see those canards discounted. In fact bin Laden despised the secular regime in Iraq. He may rejoice in a US invasion of Iraq not only to see an old antagonist defeated, but because it will radicalize other Islamic countries whose leaders are pro-western, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.

Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who deserves to be taken down, but I don't think it's smart for the US start a war when Iraq does not represent a threat to US national security, particularly when it would give radical Islamic fundamentalists a cause to rise up against US imperialism.

Also largely undebated is the cost of the war. Combat in the 1991 Gulf War lasted less than a week, mainly in the desert. An invasion will require a potentially costly battle to take Baghdad and other cities, raising the prospect of house-to-house combat that could cost the lives of hundreds of US soldiers and thousands of Iraqis, including civilians serving as human shields or caught under bombs that aren't as smart as advertised. Or US commanders might choose to level Baghdad and its pockets of resistance as well as civilians. In that case we'll win Baghdad but lose the rest of the Islamic world watching on Al Jazeera.

Then what do we do with Iraq? The White House is said to be contemplating a military occupation of at least 18 months, with revenue from the country's oilfields expected to pay for the costs of reconstruction (assuming Saddam doesn't sabotage the wells to keep them out of US hands). The UN says the war could create millions of refugees.

Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said that he was "viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country."

It's madness; it risks plunging the Middle East into further internecine wars; and it creates a new generation of Al Qaeda martyrs, all because Bush needed an issue to take voters' minds off the White House/Enron scandals last fall.

Meanwhile, the White House has low-balled the war's cost. Larry Lindsey's candor in admitting to the Wall Street Journal that the war easily could cost $200 billion was one of the reasons he was hustled out of his job as Bush's economic adviser. It's hard to figure how the war could cost less than the $58 billion the first Gulf War cost in 1991. The US chipped in $10 billion of that bill, with allies splitting the balance. This time the US likely will be picking up the tab on our own.

Heading into a foreign war that could cost several hundred billion dollars does not seem like a good time to be talking about cutting another $670 billion in taxes for the wealthy over a decade, including nearly $100 million in the first 16 months, but that's just what Dubya is proposing with his "economic stimulus" package. Bush proposes to do away with the tax on stockholder dividends in a replay of the GOP "trickle down" economic scheme that created record federal deficits in the 1980s. Democrats are pushing instead for tax rebates for workers and breaks for businesses, extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states. At least the Democrats' $136 billion plan would stimulate the economy. The Bush plan would mainly stimulate stock speculation.

Bush Plans Assault on Medicare

With the new Senate majority leader from the HCA hospital chain in his corner, George W. Bush is preparing his assault on Medicare. Many doctors already are withdrawing from Medicare after seeing their fees cut 5.4% last year and 4.4% this year, and Bush's plans for the senior health program closely resemble Sen. Bill Frist's proposal to push seniors from fee-for-service into less costly HMOs. Bush reportedly is insisting that any plan for prescription drug benefits include "major Medicare reforms." The White House also has enlisted conservative Democratic Sen John B. Breaux of Louisiana to work with Frist on legislation.

In June, the House passed a Republican bill to offer drug benefits to 40 million elderly and disabled people on Medicare, along with a little-noticed experimental provision under which the fee-for-service Medicare program would compete with private insurance plans, including health maintenance organizations, in four metropolitan areas.

Some Dems are balking at the political blackmail. "If the price of a prescription drug benefit is the end of Medicare as we know it, that's not a price worth paying," said Debbie Curtis, chief of staff to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., a major defender of the Medicare program.

For the anticipated $200 billion cost of Dick & Dubya's adventure in Iraq, Congress could provide health care for everybody by expanding Medicare to cover all US residents, as well as providing prescription drugs and long-term health care. (This assumes that $700 billion now spent by employers and employees for private health plans would be redirected into a federal program.) Some think that by eliminating the excessive profits charged by health corporations and drugmakers we could save enough money to fund the program with current amounts spent on our limited health coverage (See www.pnhp.org).

Before it can dismantle Medicare and give more tax breaks to the wealthy and/or workers, Congress has to clear away a huge stack of unfinished business from last year, including long-overdue domestic spending bills, as well as legislation to extend unemployment benefits that expired just after Christmas.

Other hot-button issues include proposals to fine-tune the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system; reauthorization of transportation programs, a Republican push for limits on damages from lawsuits, starting with medical malpractice cases; abortion restrictions and a ban on human cloning; expedited action on judicial nominees; and proposals to increase domestic drilling, including another effort to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drillers. Dems are expected to challenge the GOP on spending for education and homeland security and advocate help for minorities following the Trent Lott debacle.

Democrats must hold 41 of their 49 members to block bad bills and judicial nominations from reaching the floor. Sen. Tom Daschle made a good decision to forgo a presidential race and concentrate on Senate leadership. We hope he can focus Senate Democrats on effective ways to fight the slim Republican majority. Contact your senators to keep them in line. -- JMC

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