Rethinking war and the public schools

February 26, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

After being out of the office for the past two weeks, I've spent the last two days catching up on local issues, because the newsstand where I was vacationing didn't carry The Herald-Mail.

But even 1,000 miles from home there was no avoiding news of a possible war with Iraq. I don't pretend to have any foreign policy expertise, but when I last wrote about this, I said I'd feel better about war if the president could provide some evidence that Iraq really does have those weapons of mass destruction. After the Nixon years, I said, I have a bit of a problem with a president who says "I can't tell you why, but trust me."

Afterward a reader e-mailed me to say that Bill Clinton wasn't exactly a trustworthy guy, either. No disagreement there. Regarding Iraq, I recently read two good arguments for American intervention. The first came from Michael Kelly, editor-in-chief of the National Journal and editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Writing in The Washington Post on Feb. 19, he urged those who oppose war to consider the Iraqis.


"There are 24 million of them, and they have been living (those who have not been slaughtered or forced into exile) for decades under one of the cruelest and bloodiest tyrannies on earth. It must be assumed, being human, they would prefer to be rescued from a hell where more than a million lives have been sacrificed to the dreams of a megalomaniac, where rape is a sanctioned instrument of state policy, and where the removal of the tongue is the prescribed punishment for uttering an offense against the Great Leader."

Strong stuff. So far the president has focused on the potential danger Iraq poses to America and not much on the possibility of relieving Iraqis' suffering.

The same argument, more poignant because she was directly affected, came from Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

Writing in the Feb. 10 issue of The New Republic magazine, she describes what happened in February 1991, when the first President Bush urged Iraqis "to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."

Fifteen of the country's 18 provinces rebelled, but when it came time to support the uprising, Al-Suwaij wrote that "American troops did not interfere as Saddam turned his helicopters and tanks against us..."

She escaped, bribing a border guard to let her slip into Jordan. She wonders whether the present President Bush will keep the promise his father didn't.

Whatever happens, America cannot turn its back on those it asks to fight. This year CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" reported that promises made to the Afghan people to help rebuild their country and provide more security haven't been kept, at least not so far.

Will they be kept in Iraq? New Republic reports that the president has not included an estimate of the war's cost in the budget because it's impossible to tell what those costs will be.

That's hard to swallow. As local governments have learned recently, it's impossible to tell how much snow will fall, but that didn't stop them from budgeting for road salt. I am now more persuaded than I was that war is necessary, but not convinced this administration is ready to follow through in its aftermath.

On a much lighter note, do you ever wonder, as I do, how state Sen. Don Munson really feels about Washington County Commissioner John Munson, who owes his election in great part to the last name they share?

Sen. Munson declined comment when asked about Commissioner Munson's recent proposal to abolish the local public school system, but I'll bet the senator is less than pleased, since he was a public school teacher before going to the Maryland General Assembly.

In a nutshell, Commissioner Munson's proposal would give parents vouchers to send their children to private schools. He said he made it to end the annual squabble between the School Board and the County Commissioners over funding. He said he's "not against education. My problem is there's a lot of waste down there and they don't do anything about it."

A lot of people are upset about Commissioner Munson's idea, but let me suggest that they're angry for the wrong reason.

Put aside questions of constitutionality and whether there are enough private school slots available here for every child whose parents would want to use a voucher system. In fact, vouchers are being tried in some cities and in others the work of education has been contracted out to private companies.

What irks me and what ought to irk every taxpaying citizen is that Munson has had an idea, but hasn't done the mental gruntwork and research to turn that idea into a full-blown plan as, for example, Harold Phillips did with his school-consolidation plan.

What Munson was elected to do, what he and all the other commissioners are paid to do, is to find the waste he says is in the school budget and persuade the School Board to eliminate it. Doing that will be more difficult than just tossing out a half-formed idea, but presumably that's why they raised the salary to $30,000 per year.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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