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The Price of Captain O'Grady's Life


New York. -- In some ways the most interesting reaction to the wonderful rescue of Capt. Scott O'Grady from Bosnian Serb-held territory was a short letter in the New York Times from a man named Robert Baldridge in Lawrence, Long Island.

Mr. Baldridge recounted the World War II rescue exploits of his father, Col. Malcolm Baldridge, in that same dangerous part of the world. Working out of Sofia, Bulgaria, Colonel Baldridge was part of a unit assigned to rescuing members of Allied bombing crews shot down while attacking the Axis-controlled oil fields of Ploesti, Romania. His key weapon was a suitcase full of $50 gold pieces -- the U.S. government paid locals who led them to surviving airmen.

It sure beat fighting their way into territory still occupied by German troops in 1944. What's money for? If you've got it, use it. Flaunt it!

How much do you think it cost to rescue Captain O'Grady? Begin calculating with the research and development cost of the amazing little PRC-112 radio the Department of Defense buys from Motorola, which can do its work undetected in 300 milliseconds. How much do you think it costs to move aircraft carriers into the Mediterranean and to use 40 planes and helicopters to save one American?

Hundreds of millions of dollars, I would guess, after talking to people at the Pentagon and Motorola. The meter began ticking with the kind of basic electronic research the Pentagon has been financing at universities and military research outposts for decades -- an endeavor mocked by many politicians and despised by many taxpayers. So, was it worth it? You decide, taxpayers.

Rescuing airmen (bureaucrats in uniform) is one of the things the federal government does in a rich country -- though the high costs of "search and rescue" training and missions have often been criticized, particularly when the attempts fail.

Another expensive business is to try to buy up nuclear weapons and bomb-grade uranium in Russia and the rest of the old Soviet Union. That costs $12 billion. Worth it? You decide.

The federal budget is the bill for national priorities. Behind almost every line in the budget is a national priority or political necessity -- though such things are not always labeled as what they really are.

Medical research and national highway construction were both "hidden" in anti-communist Pentagon budgets. Foreign aid, for instance, is regularly the item most criticized and most misunderstood by taxpayers -- and by many politicians, too. Whatever neo-isolationist congresspersons tell their constituents, the post-Cold War United States has become an unbelievably cheap rich country when it comes to sharing our wealth.

Being more precise: American foreign aid has had two purposes over the last 30 years or so: (1) helping us kill communism, and (2) preserving Israel.

Now that communism has killed itself, our foreign aid is close to nothing more than subsidizing Israel to the tune of $5,000 or so per capita, and paying Egypt almost that much not to invade Israel. Not a bad deal, I'd say -- I wish we had a few more like it -- but each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Welfare and such? How much of that do you think is actually a payoff to buy domestic peace at home? Some aid for minorities, for instance, goes back to World War II, when Negro leaders, particularly labor leader A. Philip Randolph, threatened to go into the streets if their people did not get a share of jobs in defense work. Was that worth the money? Franklin Roosevelt thought it was.

Rich countries try to buy their way out of trouble, just like rich people do. Always have, always will. Usually it works. This time it did, and I'll bet most Americans thought it was worth it to get back Scott O'Grady rather than see him chained to an ammunition dump or in a jumpy videotape condemning the big " government that was trying to rescue him -- and did.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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