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The Value of Vieques

November 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 DOW JONES & COMPANY, INC. All Rights Reserved.

What do you do if you're President and are looking for a gift for the girl who has everything except a Senate seat?

Last summer it was clemency for 16 Puerto Rican terrorists. Next may be the Navy's live-fire range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Just as Mr. Clinton made his clemency offer against the recommendations of the Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney offices that had prosecuted the terrorists, he is now considering shutting down Vieques against the unusually loud and clear advice of the U.S. military.

Even without the complication of the New York Senate race, the Vieques problem doesn't lend itself to an easy resolution. On one hand there is the paramount issue of national security: The nation's troops must be trained to the highest level. If not on Vieques, where? The Navy says there is no other option. On the other hand, there are the long-held wishes of the citizens of Puerto Rico, who have been trying to negotiate the Navy's departure from Vieques for decades and who thought they had an agreement in the early 1980s that the Navy would search for an alternative site. The matter exploded in April after the accidental death of a civilian security guard on Vieques.

Vice Admiral William Fallon, commander of the Second Fleet, which covers the Atlantic, speaks for the Navy when he calls Vieques "critical to readiness." It is the only location on the East Coast where the Navy and Marine Corps can practice combined air, sea and land operations using live ammunition, essential exercises for combat troops. "People have to have the confidence to be able to do their jobs under stress," he says -- and no computer game can simulate the stress of live ammunition. About 50,000 troops train on Vieques every year. Virtually all naval and Marine troops leaving the East Coast to enter combat, such as the Gulf war or Kosovo, have to train at Vieques.

The military presence there dates back to 1941, when FDR authorized the use of Vieques and the nearby island of Culebra. Since then, an explosion in the population along with the growth in air and sea commerce have closed down or sharply curtailed other live-fire training options on the Eastern Seaboard (there are plenty in the wide-open West). Operations on Culebra shut down in the late 1970s.

The bomb-and-depart nature of the training that occurs on Vieques means that, unlike most places where the military goes, there are few jobs for the 9,300 locals and next-to-no benefits for the local economy. A Navy report on economic development lists a litany of failures: cattle, crabs, shrimp, circuit boards, aloe vera, bees, to name a few industries that have gone kaput. A small number of tourists are attracted by the island's beautiful beaches -- and the Navy permits a cruise liner to make calls -- but the bombs are a deterrent to the emergence of a hospitality industry.

In Puerto Rico, there is rare political unanimity on Vieques and a shared sense that Washington has done them wrong. But it would be a mistake to interpret the anti-Vieques sentiment as anti-American or anti-military, even though those who are anti-American and anti-military have taken up the cause in the loudest voices. The tiny left-wing Independence Party has put itself at the front of the pack, with leader Ruben Berrios Martinez installing himself as a one-man tourist attraction on the island, visited by such sightseers as Jesse Jackson.

For many Puerto Ricans, moreover, the Navy's continued presence on Vieques has become a symbol of the commonwealth's lack of political influence in Washington. Statehooders point to the island of Kahoolawe, off the coast of Maui, which was expropriated for military use in the same year as Vieques. In 1990, the Senators from Hawaii, by then a state, got the military to stop using it as a bombing range.

A Presidential commission on Vieques, set up in the wake of the death of the security guard, has issued a recommendation that just might work: The Navy can stay, but only for five more years.

So far, however, the responses aren't encouraging, and without the kind of political leadership that this Administration is sorely short of, there's no chance that the commission's proposal will be implemented. Puerto Rico says no more bombing, period, and the Navy says it can't find an alternate site within five years. Mrs. Clinton chimes in that the Navy should leave immediately.

As for the commander-in-chief, Mr. Clinton must decide shortly whether to go through with the U.S.S. Eisenhower's planned training exercises on December 1. If the exercises are canceled, Admiral Fallon warns that he might not be able to certify the Eisenhower group as combat ready. That comes on the heels of an Army announcement that two of its divisions are not combat ready, receiving the lowest of four possible grades -- and that no division received the highest readiness rating. Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who heads the readiness subcommittee, says you have to go back to the 1970s for a comparable crisis in military preparedness.

In an interview with Telemundo Television early this month, Mr. Clinton took the opportunity to badmouth the military's treatment of Vieques, saying that he would "work hard" to get a compromise through, but not committing himself to the Eisenhower's exercises. After the raw exercise in politicking on display in the FALN clemency grants, it's hard to have any confidence that when he does get around to resolving the Vieques matter, this President will put the national interest first.

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