How border wall hysteria continues to threaten to US icebreaker funds

OPINION: Congress should show the U.S. is serious about its role in the Arctic. It can do so by leaving funding for an icebreaker intact — not raiding it to pay for an ill-advised border wall.

By Dermot Cole - December 17, 2018
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star cuts through Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea to create a navigation channel for supply ships, Jan. 16, 2017. (Chief Petty Officer David Mosley / U.S. Coast Guard)

It makes no sense to cut money for building a polar class icebreaker so that Congress can fund a U.S. border wall with Mexico.

But that didn’t stop the U.S. House of Representatives from shifting $750 million out of the icebreaker category to back the wasteful wall on the southern border.

We’ll know within the next couple of weeks if Congress is able to set aside the hysteria generated by President Donald Trump and focus its attention on the looming challenge in the north.

Even if Trump’s wall could solve the immigration issue — which it can’t — this should not be an either/or situation.

The connection is that both would be funded through the Department of Homeland Security, however, and something has to give within that section of the budget.

In this environment, logic about what should be a federal priority has given way to passion and propaganda.

We can only hope that the U.S. Senate version of funding for the department will prevail in the waning moments of 2018 and that money to start building a modern U.S. icebreaker  fleet will be approved.

If the money is approved, it will be a signal that the U.S. is serious about creating a fleet that can operate in the north.

But if the money is not approved, “that sends a signal to industry that the nation is second-guessing itself and that it’s not serious about security in the Arctic regions and that we’re not serious about building these ships,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Michael Haycock told a Congressional committee Nov. 29.

Growing commercial and military operations in the Arctic are a certainty, with the decline in summer sea ice coverage.

And the U.S. isn’t ready to deal with this element of climate change and the rapid transformation that has already begun.

The U.S. could find itself without a working icebreaker within a few years because its existing ships are nearly ready for the scrapyard.

That threat alone should have been enough years ago to stop Congress and the president from dithering, but it hasn’t. Trump has tried to create a sense of panic about a wall because that appeals to the minority of Americans who support his behavior.

Hyping the threat from Mexico is one way of deflecting attention from the criminal investigations and constant chaos that has crippled the Trump administration.

Republican members of  the U.S. House who want to appease Trump are willing to give him what he wants on the wall, but aren’t eager to add another big chunk to the deficit.

They refuse to call him on his repeated promises that Mexico will pay for the wall, but are willing to ignore the icebreaker funding because most Americans are not aware of the implications for trade and national security.

Trump is not trying to create a sense of panic about icebreakers and the arguments for getting them built are less emotional than the prospect of invading hordes from the south.

I think that Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat, correctly summarized this sorry dilemma during a Nov. 29 hearing in Washington, D.C.

“The House decided to spend $5 billion on a goddamn wall and won’t do a thing to protect America,” he said.

The Senate decided to spend money on “security,” which may include a wall, and an icebreaker.

“The problem is us, and we’re either going to decide to build icebreakers or build a wall,” Garamendi said.

“It’s a choice, make a choice, what do we want to do? We’re going to forget about the polar — the Arctic Ocean?”

The National Defense Strategy warns of the potential for conflict with Russia and China, Garamendi said, nations that are moving ahead with advanced vessels that can deal with ice.

“And we’re going to build a wall on the Mexican border to prevent what?”

The alleged “invasion” of 5,000 people.

“My god, the problem is us, folks. Plain and simple. The money is there, the question is where are we gonna spend it,” he said.

Congress should end the dithering and send a message that the U.S. is serious about the Arctic.

Dermot Cole can be reached at [email protected].

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