It's the oldest con trick in the world: Divert their attention to something outrageous. Then, while they're jumping and pointing and yelling, sneak the truly awful thing by their noses without their even noticing.
President George W. Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general is outrageous, to be sure. The nominee blatantly distorted the record of a highly qualified African-American Missouri Supreme Court judge; led attempts to amend the Constitution and pass legislation banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest; blocked Dr. Henry Foster's confirmation as surgeon general, and almost blocked Dr. David Satcher's confirmation, because they weren't sufficiently anti-abortion; helped prevent a full Senate vote on the nomination of Asian-American Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights because Lee was "soft" on affirmative action; introduced or sponsored seven attempts to amend the Constitution of the United States in pursuit of his right-wing agenda, including one amendment that would make it far easier to amend the Constitution in the future; and opposed a voluntary desegregation plan for St. Louis. Make no mistake: Ashcroft is among the most right-wing politicians in contemporary America.
Equally outrageous is W.'s plan to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion and reward most of the benefits of the cut to people who are in the top 5 percent of income earners. These are the very people whose incomes ballooned during the 1990s while middle-income earners saw almost no increase in pay and benefits, and while people in the bottom half had to work much longer hours in order to make ends meet.
But when the history of the early decades of the twenty-first century is written, neither W.'s nomination of John Ashcroft nor his giant tax giveaway to the rich will merit more than passing mention. Of much greater significance and far greater danger is W.'s decision to embark upon a massive military buildup, including a huge missiledefense shield. Future chroniclers will note that while many Americans stomped and yelled about Ashcroft and about W.'s tax plan, Prime Minister Richard Cheney snuck this big one by Americans' noses without so much as a passing glance.
Both Russia and China are nuclear powers. Russia retains thousands of long-range nuclear weapons. Yet it is a nation in disarray and its economy is contracting. Russian hard-liners are aghast at W.'s missile-shield plan, which they believe not only violates the bilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty but would, when completed, allow the United States to strike at Russia without fear of retaliation. They're urging President Vladimir Putin to strengthen Russia's ties with rogue states and with China, to counterbalance this new American threat.
Chinese hard-liners also worry about the shield, which they fear may embolden pro-independence forces in Taiwan and destabilize the entire region. China possesses about two dozen long-range nuclear missiles based in silos, but it has the economic power to escalate its arms buildup dramatically to include movable and more accurate missiles with multiple warheads. China may also be moved to supply missiles to the very rogue states that the shield was intended to defend against.
W.'s emerging approach to foreign relations is not so much a foreign policy as it is an America-first policy. The defense shield is one feature of the new insularity. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell vow to avoid foreign peacekeeping efforts unless this nation's interest is directly at stake. W. calls for "energy independence" that will allow drilling on Alaska's north slope and probing for natural gas on public lands. Foreign aid will be slashed. The United States will pull out of the International Criminal Court. And all the while, tens of billions of dollars a year will be poured into military hardware and software in the largest buildup since President Ronald Reagan squared off against the Evil Empire.
Worried about Ashcroft and tax breaks for the rich? At least the Departments of Justice and the Treasury are carefully monitored by Congress. With half the seats on the Senate oversight committees, Democrats will watch Ashcroft's every move and fight regressive tax policies.
But America's foreign and defense policies are considered largely within the discretion of the executive branch. Congressional oversight has never been particularly effective. Presidents no longer even have to declare war. Assertions by top State and Defense Department officials cannot be readily checked. Much information is classified. The public is not especially interested.
Expect even less accountability this time around. Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Vice President Dick Cheney are considered seasoned veterans. Who will be willing to take on this formidable troika? Yet they're also Cold Warriors--and not a diplomat among them. Rumsfeld was a founding member of the Committee on the Present Danger, which effectively undermined President Jimmy Carter's arms control policies. He was the first major advocate of the MX missile, and he was a moving force behind the Republican right's Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which rejected the CIA's more moderate 1995 estimate of the ABM threat.
America is about to begin a Frigid War, at our peril. It's happening under our noses, while we look in the other direction.