When things unravel 

Bush and Schweitzer share a common problem

Who would have thought President George W. Bush and Gov. Brian Schweitzer would have so much in common these days? Oh sure, the obvious differences of political party and relative position in the grand scheme of things are still there. But both men are sharing some undoubtedly angst-filled moments as their great plans for the future begin to unravel right before their very eyes.

For Bush, it’s the stupendous mistake of the Iraq War. More troops is what we need, he says, and the tongue-tied and ineffective Democrat majority in Congress seem incapable of stopping the escalation, let alone getting us out of the war. And so Bush’s new request for another hundred billion or so in additional war funding will likely be approved under the phony excuse of “supporting the troops.” But don’t worry, the Dems will load up the must-pass bill with tons of their own spending priorities and consider that some kind of victory.

What Congress should really be doing, of course, is exercising its authority as an independent branch of government and support the troops by bringing them home as soon as they can possibly load them up and get them out of the hellhole of Bush’s misbegotten wars. And they ought to be doing it soon because the war in Afghanistan, another of Bush’s great ideas, is unraveling at a frightening pace.

Just this week, an American air strike dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on a complex of mud huts just north of Kabul. United States soldiers say they saw two men with weapons run into the complex and called in the air strike. Imagine, if you can, what it might be like to have 4,000 pounds of high explosives hit your house, let alone a mud hut. The devastation was total, but when the shell-shocked villagers dug through the rubble, what they pulled out were the bodies of nine members of the same Afghan family, not combatants. Even worse, four of the dead were young children, aged from 6 months to 5-years-old while the rest of the victims spanned four generations of the same family.

This horrendous tale comes hard on the heels of an incident just days ago in which U.S. Marine Special Forces are accused of indiscriminately opening fire from their convoy on unarmed civilians. The official U.S. line is the troops received incoming fire from multiple directions and were acting in self-defense. But Afghans on the scene gave a completely different version of what happened and claimed the only ones shooting were the troops, who raked vehicles and civilians with deadly fire, killing 10 people and wounding many more.

In the face of a rising Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, killing civilians is not how the United States is going to win. Formal investigations have been called for, but Afghans say they already suspect a U.S. coverup because American soldiers confiscated and destroyed videos and pictures taken by members of the press who came upon the scene shortly after the carnage.

President Bush would like us to believe there aren’t any problems with his wars. He would like us to believe that, contrary to all indications, we are somehow winning. But as it becomes more apparent every day, both conflicts are completely unraveling—despite the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars we continue to pour into them.

Closer to home, Gov. Schweitzer has his own little problem with things unraveling. By now most Montanans know the Republican House has basically tossed the Schweitzer budget, breaking it into six parts that will go forward as separate appropriations bills. Angry denunciations by Democrats and administration officials notwithstanding, it’s sheer fantasy to think the Republicans will ever admit they made a mistake and resurrect the Schweitzer budget bill—or maybe they’ll do so when George Bush admits his mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan—but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Not all of the governor’s unraveling plans are taking place at the legislature. Last October Schweitzer announced the Bull Mountain Mine near Roundup would soon be the site of a multi-billion-dollar coal-to-liquids plant. “They all have experience; they all have deep pockets,” is how Schweitzer described the developers. “They understand what they’re doing, and when they announce something, it’s for real.” Meanwhile, Evan Barrett, the governor’s chief economic development official, lauded the jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars the plant would provide.

Let’s just say Schweitzer could have vetted his industrial partners a little more carefully before he jumped on the bully pulpit. Last week Tennessee developer John Baugues Jr., who owns the Bull Mountain property, idled the operation, laid off 50 workers and headed for the East Coast to try and sell the mine, which he says will happen by the end of April.

Those who have followed the dubious exploits of Baugues since he acquired the mine in 1995 have plenty of reasons to again wonder what’s going on. Baugues has been sued numerous times for defaulting on millions of dollars owed to prior investors, was shut down by the state for nonpayment of fines for environmental violations and has left locals holding the bill on more than one occasion. Now, it would appear, the saga of the Bull Mountain Mine—and Schweitzer’s dreams of a coal-to-liquid plant there—are unraveling.

When Schweitzer initially announced the scheme, Roundup rancher Jeanne Charter told reporters: “Our main concern is that the governor is betting big money on the slowest horse. Smaller projects are a better scheme for improving the rural economy instead of one, big centralized deal.” In light of current events, Charter’s warning now seems prophetic. Then again, many predicted disaster in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, too.

Sometimes politicians think that, thanks to their leadership, things will turn out differently than they have in the past—and sometimes they do. But sometimes, as we’re now seeing both abroad and at home, those plans just unravel.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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