WASHINGTON -- President Bush, seeking to help one of the leading Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, has rejected strong Navy objections and reversed nearly 50 years of U.S. policy by ordering the military to stop bombing practice on the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe.
The abrupt decision was clearly timed to boost the candidacy of Representative Patricia Saiki, the Honolulu Republican regarded by national GOP leaders as their best hope for wresting a Senate seat from the Democrats next month, a senior administration official acknowledged last week.
By signing an executive order yesterday and permitting Mrs. Saiki to break the news to the Hawaii media, Mr. Bush succeeded in upstaging her Democratic opponent, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, and the state's senior senator, Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, who were announcing the same day that legislation seeking an end to military operations at Kahoolawe had moved closer to final passage.
The president's order preceded his appearance in Honolulu Friday night at a fund-raiser for Mrs. Saiki, who is running in a dead heat with Mr. Akaka, according to the latest local media poll.
But by week's end, it remained unclear whether Mr. Bush's act of political expediency would have much lasting effect on Election Day. Native Hawaiian groups and state officials, who seemed to be fighting hopeless battles against the pro-defense Reagan and Bush administrations, cheered the president's decision but reacted cynically to the onslaught of dueling political press releases.
"He [Mr. Bush] is not doing it because he loves the Hawaiian culture," Walter Ritte Jr., a native Hawaiian activist, told local reporters. "If it does turn out that the bombing will stop forever, then God bless politics. But right now, keep the beer cold -- not time to celebrate yet."
Mr. Bush's order stripped U.S. forces in the Pacific of what has long been regarded as the only suitable target range for small arms, artillery, naval gunfire and aerial bombing exercises.
And it has renewed serious discussions within the military about pulling ships from Pearl Harbor and possibly withdrawing other forces from Hawaii to save the costs of sending them elsewhere across the ocean to train.
The desolate island of Kahoolawe, smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands, has belonged to the federal government since its seizure from the Hawaiian monarchy and U.S. annexation in 1898. The now bomb-scarred island first became a target range for the military during World War II.
The Navy, which has jurisdiction over the 45-square-mile island, considers Kahoolawe essential for combat readiness in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf, where many U.S. Pacific Command forces have been deployed for Operation Desert Shield.
But for years, most Hawaii residents have backed demands that the Navy give back Kahoolawe, an effort that once aroused only passing interest until a stray 500-pound bomb happened to fall unexploded into the Maui County mayor's cow pasture in 1969.
Since the early 1970s, when native Hawaiians developed a resurgent interest in their cultural and religious past, the island has become a powerful symbol.
A protest movement led to Navy concessions in 1980, including regular visitation rights, and placement of the island on the National Register of Historical Places in 1981 to protect more than 500 prehistoric and historic sites.
"The emotional momentum had been building to get a resolution to this problem," said Bob Wernet, Mrs. Saiki's chief aide. He called the timing of the president's order "fortuitous."
White House officials were well aware of Navy opposition to any bombing halt, but the administration official observed, "It was beginning to look like it was probably going to happen one way or another, so the president decided to go ahead on Monday."