President's priority list is a mixed-up mess


WASHINGTON - My wife constantly regales me about her favorite National Public Radio show, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me. The show features three journalists who have to answer questions about the week's news. Some of the news stories they are quizzed about seem totally unbelievable, while others are straightforward.

Well, this is my last column for 2004, so let's play a little Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me. I'll give you 10 news stories from the past few weeks and you tell me what they all have in common.

1. The report that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told President Bush a few weeks ago that we do not have enough troops in Iraq and that we don't control the terrain.

2. The report that the Pentagon's $10-billion-a-year effort to build an anti-missile shield, and have a basic ground-based version in place by the end of this year, ran into difficulty two weeks ago when the first test in almost two years failed because the interceptor missile didn't take off.

3. The report that the Bush-Republican budget for 2005 contained a $105 million cut in federal funding to the National Science Foundation.

4. The report that at a time when young Americans are competing head to head with young Chinese, Indians and Eastern Europeans more than ever, the Bush team is trimming support for the Pell Grant program, which helps poor and working-class young Americans get a higher education. (The change will save $300 million, while some 1.3 million students will receive smaller Pell Grants.)

5. The report this month that children in Asian countries once again surpassed U.S. fourth-graders and eighth-graders in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. (U.S. eighth-graders did improve their scores from four years ago, but U.S. fourth-graders remained stagnant.)

A week earlier, the Program for International Student Assessment showed U.S. 15-year-olds scoring below average compared with other countries when asked to apply math skills to real-life tasks, the Associated Press reported.

6. The report this month that the Bush administration has reduced America's contribution to global food aid programs intended to help the world's hungry feed themselves. (The Bush team said it was necessary to keep our deficit under control.)

7. The report that U.S. military spending this year is running at about $450 billion.

Wait, wait, don't go away; there's more:

8. The report that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was confronted by troops in Iraq about the fact that they did not have enough armor on their vehicles and were having to scrounge for makeshift armor to protect themselves.

9. The report that among President Bush's top priorities in his second term is to simplify the tax code and to make the sweeping tax cuts from his first term permanent. (The cost to the Treasury for doing so, the AP reported, would be more than a trillion.)

And finally: 10. The report that the U.S. dollar continued to hover near record lows against the euro.

So what is the common denominator of all these news stories? Wait, wait, don't tell me. I want to tell you. The common denominator is a country with a totally contradictory and messed-up set of priorities.

We face two gigantic national challenges today:

One is the challenge to protect America in the wake of the new terrorist threats, which has involved us in three huge military commitments - Afghanistan, Iraq and missile defense. And the other is the challenge to strengthen American competitiveness in the wake of an expanding global economy, where more and more good jobs require higher levels of education, and those good jobs will increasingly migrate to those countries with the brainpower to do them.

In the face of these two national challenges, we have an administration committed to radical tax cuts, which, one can already see, are starting to affect everything from the number of troops we can deploy in Iraq to the number of students we can properly educate at our universities. And if we stay on this course, the trade-offs are only going to get worse.

Something has to give. We can't protect America with the grand strategy Mr. Bush has embarked on and strengthen our students with the skills they need and cut taxes, as if we didn't have a care in the world.

If we were actually having a serious national debate, this is what we would be discussing, but alas, 9/11 has been deftly exploited to choke any debate. Which reminds me of my wife's other favorite NPR radio show. It's called Whad'ya Know? It always opens the same way. The announcer shouts to the studio audience, "Whad'ya know?" And they shout back. "Not Much. You?"

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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