George Bush, Space Cowboy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 21, 2008; 12:16 PM

President Bush now has something else to add to his legacy: A significant milestone in the militarization of space.

Josh White and Marc Kaufman write for The Washington Post this morning: "Military officials have a 'high degree of confidence' that they were able to hit and destroy the tank of potentially dangerous fuel aboard a wayward spy satellite orbiting Earth last night, but they said they must still monitor the debris to be certain it does not pose further risk of reentering the atmosphere in coming days."

But consider this: "Before last night's intercept, some experts had expressed doubts about the seriousness of the risk posed by the falling satellite and questioned whether the shot was an excuse to perform an anti-satellite test that many people around the world found controversial," White and Kaufman write.

"Scientists, arms-control advocates and others said the shoot-down was based on questionable modeling by the government of the risks to human health and was a danger to the future peaceful use of space. . . .

"Some worried that the U.S. decision to adapt a rocket designed for missile defense to serve as an anti-satellite weapon would encourage other nations to experiment with their own anti-satellite technology. . . .

"Though [Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,] and other defense officials said the effort was not a test of the nation's missile defense system, nor a show of force to other countries that the U.S. can take down a satellite, the operation makes it clear that the missile defense system can be modified very quickly to accomplish such a task."

John Barry writes for Newsweek that the satellite, "USA 193, weighing around 5,000 pounds, is the size of a school bus. But . . . [t]hree-quarters of the earth's surface is water. Ninety-five percent is uninhabited. Suppose USA 193's debris were to cover a few square miles, which is a plausible estimate. The earth's surface is 197 million square miles -- all but one-20th of which is uninhabited. . . .

"The detailed rationale given by administration officials for the shoot-down makes little more sense. USA 193 carries on board a tank of hydrazine, the fuel U.S. satellites use to change orbit in space. . . . Hydrazine is moderately toxic, with effects akin to chlorine gas. The hydrazine cloud from USA 193's tank would, if released, diffuse over an area of roughly two football fields. The cloud would dissipate in minutes. Nevertheless, we are told, that is the risk that impelled President Bush to order the satellite's midair destruction."

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe that Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday "stressed that the United States has gone out of its way to assuage any concerns of foreign nations that the mission was also being used to test the military's ability to destroy the satellites of other countries."

Nevertheless, "China and Russia have both expressed concerns that the launch was meant to test a new antisatellite weapon."

Bruce W. MacDonald and Charles D. Ferguson write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that "the administration put at risk multiple U.S. security interests -- a high price to pay to offset that highly unlikely danger.

"The administration has insisted that it was not trying to test the anti-satellite capabilities of the Navy's Aegis missile defense system, but that was exactly the result. The action was similar to China's unwise anti-satellite test in January 2007: An interceptor missile was launched, releasing a warhead meant to destroy the target satellite. . . .

"Just as China did, the U.S. was demonstrating its anti-satellite capability, stepping briefly across a dangerous threshold, undercutting American and international criticism of China and threatening an arms race in space. . . .

"Washington should not be surprised when Beijing exploits this launch to justify its own burgeoning anti-satellite program. The U.S. action will give China, Russia and others an excuse to develop and test comparable capabilities, claiming that they too need to keep their populations safe from falling satellites. China may well feel freed from the pledge it made last year not to test its anti-satellite weapons again."

The USA Today editorial board writes that the destruction of the satellite "might be just what the White House says it is: a well-intentioned effort to destroy a school bus-sized contraption carrying toxic fuel before it can threaten lives on the ground.

"But because the administration seemed willing as recently as last month to let the satellite plummet to Earth unmolested -- figuring that much of it would be burned up in a fiery re-entry and the rest would have little chance of hitting anyone on the planet's vast expanse -- it's not surprising that the shoot-down plan is generating suspicion. Critics such as Russia's Defense Ministry say the real motive is to test U.S. space weapons capability."

The destruction of the satellite also creates great PR for Bush's otherwise largely unsuccesful and hugely expensive missile defense program.

Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic programs at the Federation of American Scientists, was Live Online on washingtonpost.com yesterday. "I can't read minds so I don't know motivations but I suspect that one motivation is that this is a great political boost to the missile defense system," he wrote. "People don't make much distinction between missile defense and anti-satellite intercepts. So here is this 'grave' danger from space, we fire a rocket at it and, poof, the danger is gone. Aren't you glad we spent the billions of dollars on that missile defense system? . . .

"I believe that a reasonably skeptical person can be forgiven that there is more going on here than the administration claims."

As for the risks, Oelrich wrote: "To put this in some perspective, the US produces 36,000,000 pounds of hydrazine every year. The world 130,000,000 pounds. This is transported around the country in trucks and on trains. At any given moment FAR more hydrazine is being shipped on the country's highways, through towns and cities and inhabited areas, than the amount on this satellite. (And far more dangerous materials, like chlorine.) So I do not buy the public safety argument. If the administration were concerned about public safety, they would take the millions of dollars spent on this intercept and spend it on traffic lights at a dangerous intersection or on vaccines for children."

Gail Collins writes in her New York Times opinion colum today: "Small, paranoid minds wondered if the government was not being completely forthright about its motives. The weapons the military mobilized to do the shooting are part of the missile defense system. Some people think the whole poison-gas story is just an excuse to give the Pentagon a chance to test its hardware.

"This is only conceivable if you can imagine that the people who are in charge of intelligence-gathering might attempt to mislead the American public."

Militarizing Africa?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Wednesday tried to calm deep fears about expanding U.S. strategic ambitions in Africa, dismissing speculation that he wants to build military bases on the continent as just 'baloney.'

"Bush ordered the Pentagon to set up a new Africa Command last year but left its headquarters in Germany amid anxiety over an expanding military presence in Africa. The issue has shadowed Bush's six-day journey across the continent, as demonstrated by a Tanzanian newspaper headline declaring that he came to 'militarize' Africa. . . .

"His blunt words were an indication of how volatile the issue of the Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has become here. The Bush administration has had trouble convincing Africans that it wants to use the new command to coordinate humanitarian and security aid to Africa more effectively, not to station large forces on the continent. . . .

"The issue distracted attention from Bush's effort to showcase U.S. programs fighting AIDS, malaria and poverty in Africa. The president on Wednesday announced a $350 million, five-year plan to triple the reach of U.S. efforts fighting less prominent tropical diseases in Africa such as elephantiasis, hookworm and river blindness. . . .

"While many Africans appreciate the programs to combat disease, some remain suspicious of U.S. motives. The Africa Command was established last October in response to a growing sense within the administration that instability in Africa posed a strategic threat to the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "In some ways, the creation of AFRICOM merely represents the long-overdue recognition, on the part of the White House and the Defense Department, that global poverty, development, democracy and the rule of law should all be seen as security issues for the U.S. In this interconnected world, not even the most hard-nosed, coldhearted superpower can afford to ignore the poorest, weakest states or desperate, hopeless people. . . .

"AFRICOM takes seriously the interconnected nature of modern security threats and responds by seeking to seamlessly merge both the 'hard' and 'soft' components of U.S. power. Through AFRICOM, soldiers and diplomats, doctors and teachers, police officers and engineers will work hand in hand to promote the U.S. objective of advancing stability in Africa.


"Innovative though it may be, it also has a familiar ring to it, one that isn't reassuring to many African ears. It's a Kipling-esque ring, perhaps: something to do with the White Man's Burden, something that reminds many Africanists of the bad old days of colonialism, when European imperial powers also seamlessly merged their military, economic, political and diplomatic forces to dominate and exploit Africa's people and resources.

"Promoting African peace, democracy and development are all good things, but the U.S. efforts might be more palatable if the velvet glove handing out foreign aid weren't stretched so obviously over the iron fist of the world's most lethal war-fighting machine. To skeptics, AFRICOM's creation suggests that the scramble for Africa isn't over, it's just entering a new phase, as the U.S. seeks to keep Africa stable -- on U.S. terms."

Trip Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Traveling across Africa this week, President Bush has been a little like Santa Claus, a benevolent figure from another land handing out gifts -- American foreign aid -- and generating smiles wherever he goes.

"But here in the capital of Ghana on Wednesday, the smiles stopped for a moment as Mr. Bush confronted skepticism about American military policy and his AIDS initiative. . . .

"[F]for the first time, he suggested that he might consider dropping a requirement that one-third of AIDS prevention dollars be spent on abstinence programs -- but only if he was convinced that the approach was not working. . . .

"'I monitor the results,' he said. 'And if it looks like it's not working, then we'll change. But thus far I can report, at least to our citizens, that the program has been unbelievably effective. And we're going to stay at it.'"

But I think Stolberg is reading a bit too much into Bush's statement. For one, Bush doesn't have much time left in which to change his mind. For another, he seemed to be saying that, as long as the overall program is working -- which it is -- then he isn't going to change anything.

Indeed, if he were really looking for evidence that the program could work better without the heavy focus on abstinence, he would have to go no further than reports from the Institute of Medicine or the Government Accountability Office.

Reuters reports on the announcement by Ghana's President John Kufuor that he is christening a highway under construction the "George Bush Motorway." The road is being finished with the help of U.S. money.

Tabassum Zakaria and Deborah Charles write for Reuters: "President George W. Bush promised U.S. support for Liberia in its recovery from a crippling civil war as he visited the close U.S. ally on the last stop of a five-nation tour of Africa on Thursday.

"The U.S. leader and his wife Laura received an enthusiastic welcome from Liberians led by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist who took office in 2006 as Africa's first elected female leader."

Casualty Watch

Peter Baker blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Good thing everyone's about to head home because the casualties keep mounting. In addition to Deborah Charles's hand, a number of people on the trip have suffered from dehydration or other maladies. At one point, White House press secretary Dana Perino was given fluids through an intravenous tube.

"But the latest victim was Jon Ward of the Washington Times, who somehow ran through a plate-glass window at the Liberian executive mansion trying to keep up with the president. Colleagues say he's got some cuts on his right hand but is in surprisingly good shape considering. And in a display of heroic dedication, he even got out his pool report to other journalists despite his accident."

After relating the toasts Bush and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf offered before their lunch, "Ward then concluded with this: 'And I just ran through a window.'"

Pakistan Watch

Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration is pressing the opposition leaders who defeated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to allow the former general to retain his position, a move that Western diplomats and U.S. officials say could trigger the very turmoil the United States seeks to avoid.

"U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, said this week that they think Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, should continue to play a role, despite his party's rout in parliamentary elections Monday and his unpopularity in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation.

"The U.S. is urging the Pakistani political leaders who won the elections to form a new government quickly and not press to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf ousted last year, Western diplomats and U.S. officials said Wednesday. If reinstated, the jurists likely would try to remove Musharraf from office.

"Bush's policy of hanging on to Musharraf has caused friction between the White House and the State Department, with some career diplomats and other specialists arguing that the administration is trying to buck the political tides in Pakistan, U.S. officials said."

Syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak writes that "the first election returns were barely in Monday night when the U.S. government began pressing victorious opposition leaders not to impeach the former military strongman." But he blames this, without citing any named sources, on State Department diplomats -- the very people who, according to McClatchy, are trying to break up the White House's love affair with Musharraf. (See Tuesday's column, Bush's BFF Going Down.)

The White House announced today that Bush telephoned Musharraf following his party's loss. But as Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "White House press secretary Dana Perino would not reveal what the two leaders discussed. She said Bush has supported Musharraf all along because he 'helped Pakistan on its path to democracy' and has been a good partner in the war against terrorists. Perino said it is 'up to the Pakistani people to decide' whether Musharraf retains his position."

Change Afoot?

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post that Washington has been sending Pakistan's Defense Ministry about $80 million monthly, or roughly $1 billion a year for the past six years, ostensibly to support Pakistani troops engaged in counterterrorism efforts along the Afghan border.

"But vague accounting, disputed expenses and suspicions about overbilling have recently made these payments to Pakistan highly controversial -- even within the U.S. government," she writes.

"The poor showing in Monday's parliamentary election by the party of President Pervez Musharraf, whose government has overseen local disbursement of the money, may make Congress look closer at all U.S. financial assistance to the country. Questions have already been raised about where the money went and what the Bush administration got in return, given that pro-American sentiment in Pakistan is extremely low and al-Qaeda's presence is growing steadily stronger. . . .

"U.S. officials say the payments to Pakistan -- which over the past six years have totaled $5.7 billion -- were cheap compared with expenditures on Iraq, where the United States now spends at least $1 billion a week on military operations alone. . . .

"Congressional officials and others are concerned that the administration has been so eager to prop up Musharraf that it overlooked U.S. foreign aid and accounting standards. A congressional oversight subcommittee is also set to begin an investigation next month, while the Government Accountability Office plans to finish its own inquiry in April."

Rendition Watch

AFP reports: "The White House acknowledged Thursday that 'mistakes were made' in not notifying Britain about two so-called 'extraordinary rendition' US flights that refuelled on British soil.

"'It's unfortunate mistakes were made in the reporting of the information, but we will continue to have good counter-terrorism cooperation between the United States and United Kingdom,' said national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who referred follow-up questions to the CIA. . . .

"Britain voiced concern earlier Thursday on being told that two US planes carrying terrorist suspects on 'extraordinary rendition' flights had refuelled on British soil, despite earlier US assurances to the contrary.

"Foreign Secretary David Miliband was forced to apologise to parliament for a US 'record error' that had failed to show the planes refuelling on the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia in 2002."

Torture Watch

Libby Quaid writes for the Associated Press: "Republican presidential candidate John McCain said President Bush should veto a measure that would bar the CIA from using waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods on terror suspects.

"McCain voted against the bill, which would restrict the CIA to using only the 19 interrogation techniques listed in the Army field manual.

"His vote was controversial because the manual prohibits waterboarding -- a simulated drowning technique that McCain also opposes -- yet McCain doesn't want the CIA bound by the manual and its prohibitions.

"McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is well-known for his opposition to waterboarding, which puts him at odds with the Bush administration. . . .

"President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation, which cleared the House in December and won Senate approval last week."

Signing Statements Watch

Bradley Vasoli writes in the Philadelphia Bulletin about Karl Rove's speech at the University of Pennsylvania yesterday: "The strategist and friend of the president for over three decades . . . said he felt his former boss got unfair treatment on the matter of 'signing statements,' statements the president writes out subsequent to a law's passage to express his view that certain provisions of it are not binding on him.

"One member of the audience alleged that Mr. Bush had simply used these statements as a measure to arbitrarily exercise power over intelligence and terrorism issues, particularly warrantless wiretapping. Mr. Rove noted that when the president issues a signing statement, he does so to express his view that a provision within a law violates the U.S. Constitution and that he is discarding that provision in accordance with his duty as commander in chief. Those who disagree with his doing so, meanwhile, can take on the White House in the courtroom if they feel strongly enough about it, he said."

Glenn Kessler blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Sen. John McCain criticized President Bush today for his practice of issuing signing statements that suggest the president will ignore elements of the bills he had signed into law, saying he 'strongly disagreed' with the practice.

"'My view is Congress passes it, you veto it or you enforce it,' McCain told reporters traveling on his campaign bus. 'That's the way you do it and that's the way previous presidents have done it as well.'

"Asked if he would ever consider issuing a signing statement as president, McCain was emphatic: 'Never, never, never, never. If I disagree with a law that passed, I'll veto it.'"

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on Bush's fearmongering; Ann Telnaes on Bush's focus on African abstinence; Bruce Beattie on Bush's lonely cheerleading for Musharraf; Ben Sargent on Uncle Sam's Cuban dilemma.

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