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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: June 12, 2008 12:29 PM

A Near-Nuclear Disaster is Still a Disaster


Government investigations have uncovered two critical lapses in nuclear safekeeping under the watch of former-President Bill Clinton.

In one, the Air Force sent four nose cones for nuclear warheads to Taiwan, instead of helicopter batteries. The error took 18 months to be revealed.

It was also discovered that during Clinton's presidency a B-52 bomber flew across the country mistakenly with six, armed nuclear missiles.

Outraged Republicans in the Senate furiously condemned the lax Clinton national security breach and vociferously demanded a criminal investiga ...

Oh, wait, I'm sorry. That didn't happen during the Clinton administration. That was during the Bush administration. My mistake. I do apologize.

Admirably, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just fired two top Air Force officials, including the highest-ranking general, for system-wide problems. And he deserves credit for the action. But that's not the issue. (After all, if there's a zero-tolerance policy for anything in this world, you have to figure that risking two nuclear disasters would be at the top of the list.)

No, the issue here is to imagine whether firing two officials would have satisfied Republicans if this had occurred during the Bill Clinton Years. Ha! For goodness sake, they impeached the guy over the word "is." Just imagine is how far and deep Republican rage would have gone for nuclear insecurity.

Then imagine, too, the anger at discovering shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, the nation's crown jewel for veterans.

If you also imagined the anger had Bill Clinton over-stressed our military with an undeclared war for non-existent weapons of mass destruction and underfunded body armor -- while being in charge when the nation was attacked in a terrorist plot the White House had been warned about -- you KNOW what would be on the lips of every Republican politician, Right-wing radio host, Fox News headline ticker and talking point memo. We would have seen Republicans implode on the Senate floor with white-hot hysteria. "America is at risk! National Security has collapsed! Our boys in the military are unprotected!! Bill Clinton!!!!!!!!!!"

Instead, we pretty much get Republican silence. I don't know if this is because of embarrassment, over-riding guilt, or just low-expectations from business as usual. But the silence is deafening. For a party that purports to put "National Security" over even breath itself, you'd think that actual national security and concern for America's safety would trump bombast.

Hey, even most Democrats criticized Bill Clinton for screwing around with an intern. You'd like to believe that Republicans could muster up some disappointment over screwing up where nuclear warhead material is being sent.

Nope, it's just bombast.

Is all this the "fault" of George Bush? Of course not. Any bureaucratic government is unwieldy. Though when you set the bar so low in your administration, when your standards start with hiring a horse show manager to head national disasters and plummet from there, when all your decisions start with politics (as Scott McClellan has pointed out), not competence, you have to accept your significant part in the collapse. When "anything goes" is your standard, you're at least responsible for that. The buck actually does stop here. Not way over there.

Forgetting for a moment how red-faced livid the Republican talking machine would be if all these military-related disasters had occurred under Bill Clinton's vigil and how non-existent they are now, there's another, larger issue at play.

There is a phrase that entered American politics in the mid-1980s, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" We've gone so far beyond that question this year, with the Iraq War, collapsing housing industry, crumbling economy and rising gas prices, that it has become rhetorical. Instead, a far more serious question has lifted itself to the forefront --

"Are safer today than you were four years ago?"

Keep in mind that the George Bush administration has had seven years since the 9/11 attacks (that occurred under their "watch") to shore up American security. Seven years. They've been in the Iraq War for five years. Fighting in Afghanistan for seven years. We have nuclear warheads accidentally flying across the country, nuclear nose cones accidentally being shipped to foreign governments, lack of security at our shipping ports, armed services overstretched to the near-breaking point, and the specter of another unprovoked war with an even bigger, more dangerous nation in Iran.

Are you safer today than you were four years ago?

These two nuclear mishaps may not have put America at risk, as Mr. Gates reported. Or they may have. But by any measurement they were shoddy in an area where being shoddy is not an option. Because the next shoddy mistake could put the nation at risk.

And because it's all a part of a collapsing pattern, it makes that next shoddy mistake a greater likelihood. This is nuclear weapons procurement. This is the United States military. This is zero-tolerance. Anything less is not acceptable, whether it's the George Bush Administration or any administration.

Are you safer today than you were four years ago?

Because if you aren't, you shouldn't be silent about it. Especially if you wouldn't have been silent had it occurred under any other president.