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Thursday, March 27, 2003

OUR PLANET EARTH

MILITARY MANEUVERS

Fears over U.S. environmental ambush


Considering that the United States spends more for its military than any other nation on the planet, you might imagine the Pentagon taking a few extra steps to protect the environment -- but you'd be wrong.

In a move both shocking and awesome in its audacity, the Bush administration and the U.S. Department of Defense are seeking congressional support for a bill to exempt the military from complying with environmental laws that govern the management of hazardous waste, air pollutants, endangered species and the protection of marine mammals.

The Bush administration claims this new legislation is necessary to free up the military because these laws obstruct "military readiness."

U.S. environmental groups counter that this proposed National Defense Authorization Act of 2004 is simply an opportunistic political attempt to undermine laws businesses and military interests have for decades sought to gut.

In terms of military spending, there is no doubt that the U.S. suffers from irrational exuberance. In 2001, payouts reached $322 billion -- five times more than Russia, seven times more than China, nine times more than Britain and 115 times more than Israel.

In fact, the U.S. is spending more in total on defense than the next 11 highest-spending nations put together, and will soon outspend all other countries combined, according to Newsweek (March 24).

Clearly, the U.S. budget is large enough to ensure military readiness and fully protect America's air, water and wildlife -- after all, who would lament the production of 100 fewer cruise missiles? Not to mention the hypocrisy of adorning warplanes with pictures of the hawks and eagles whose natural habitat they're degrading.

But a closer look reveals a hypocrisy that runs much deeper. The controversy centers on the "Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative" -- Section 316 of the proposed act, which would apply to lands managed by the DoD, as well as surrounding ambient air and open-water marine ecosystems.

Here's a taste of the bill's Orwellian double-speak (italics added): "The purpose of this chapter is to: "(1) protect the lives and well-being of citizens of the United States and preserve their freedoms, economic prosperity, and environmental heritage by ensuring military readiness; . . . "(6) to re-establish the appropriate balance between military readiness and environmental stewardship; . . .

Apparently, despite its massive budget, the Pentagon fears "environmental stewardship" is getting the upper hand on "military readiness." More incredibly, the Bush administration believes that to protect the lives and well-being of American citizens and to preserve their freedoms, economic prosperity and environmental heritage, the military must have the freedom to degrade the environment.

Confusing, yes, but don't start asking questions. War is a time for patriotism, and today's brand of patriotism in the U.S. means placing blind trust in the country's leaders.

Trying to identify the "military readiness activities" that Bush officials would exempt from environmental controls is like peeling an onion. According to the bill, these activities would include "all training and operations that relate to combat, and the adequate and realistic testing of military equipment, vehicles, weapons, and sensors for proper operation and suitability for combat use."

Peeling back another layer, the bill states that "combat" and "combat use" would include "all forms of armed conflict and operational employment as well as those support functions necessary for armed conflict and operational employment, including transportation . . . ; intelligence gathering . . . ; command of and communications between military units; and similar activities necessary for the successful prosecution of armed conflict, whether or not conducted at the scene of actual conflict."

You get the idea. A military-readiness exemption would give the military carte blanche, freeing the armed forces from taking environmental precautions and allowing them to escape cleaning up after themselves. Jay Gatsby, meet 21st-century militarism.

In protest, a group of 18 leading U.S. environmental groups -- including the Earth Island Institute, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the World Wildlife Fund -- recently released a statement noting: "While we understand the importance of our military's efforts to protect national security, additional exemptions being proposed in [Section 316] are not necessary to accomplish this goal and will only threaten our nation's public health and natural heritage."

The statement explains, "Under this proposal, [the DoD] will be exempted from laws . . . that preserve the air and water around our military facilities, protect the health of people who live on or near military bases, and sustain America's wildlife -- the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund (CERCLA), the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Last year Congress rejected these exemptions and we are requesting that they do the same this year."

Citing U.S. General Accounting Office findings, the groups point out that the "DoD has failed to produce quantitative evidence that environmental laws or other 'encroachments' have significantly affected military readiness." They also report that last month Christine Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, testified before the Senate that she has "been working very closely with the [DoD] and I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in the county that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation." Whitman is a Bush appointee.

The immediate question is why a $322-billion military budget still cannot ensure the preservation of America's environment.

However, a larger issue looms: How best to win the hearts and minds of the world community?

Newsweek notes that the U.S. is the world's top foreign-aid donor, at $15 billion annually -- but "as a percentage of GNP, U.S. foreign aid ranks last among that of the richest nations."

If the purpose of U.S. military spending is to ensure long-term security for U.S. interests, does it make political and economic sense to spend 21 times more on guns and bombs than on bread, butter and the environment?

Rockets may win wars, but winning the peace requires far more, starting with basic security for all peoples and their ecosystems.

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers' comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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