Forward Observer: Hobson's Choices

It's no exaggeration to call Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, a giant killer within the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about.

He single-handedly killed the Big Bertha of nuclear bombs that President Bush and the Pentagon wanted -- the deep-burrowing bunker buster. This David now sees other Goliaths to slay with his power as chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

Missiles were flying around the Middle East as we talked in his office about his new targets. Nobody, including the United States military, had anything that could stop them.

This Middle East wildfire, coming shortly after North Korea's Fourth of July fireworks of missiles, underscored the argument Hobson used in the House to kill the Pentagon's nuclear bunker buster: Don't appropriate millions of dollars for a weapon that no president in his or her right mind would ever use.

So how does this Hobson fellow, a staunch Midwestern Republican, get away with killing Pentagon programs like the bunker buster without being called weak on defense?

The Teflon coating seems to come from his amateur eyes that see through the smoke of the experts, from his willingness to shout out that the king has no clothes and from his support of military programs that make sense to him.

The former real estate broker said that he listened to expert after expert testify before his subcommittee about why the Pentagon needed to build a nuclear bunker buster. But nobody could tell him why any president would want to alarm the whole world by ripping away the remaining restraints on the development of new nukes.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't make the case for Hobson. And the chairman felt his resistance harden when "most of the military guys, as they were going out the door, would tell me, 'We don't ever expect to use this. We don't need it. We've got other ways to do this mission,''' he recalled.

"Let me tell you what I told Rumsfeld right to his face," he continued. "I said, 'Sir, I'm more of a hawk than you.'"

Hobson told me he was not trying to deny the president a weapon he might need. "I would give the president of the United States a conventional weapon [to destroy underground bunkers] so he could actually say to a North Korea, or somebody, 'If you continue this way, I will fire.' And they will know he has a weapon he can fire. But it won't be a [nuclear] weapon that kills 1.2 million people above ground and poisons the atmosphere."

Adding to his hawkish credentials, Hobson this year championed development of the so-called Reliable Replacement Warheads to put on the noses of aging U. S. missiles. He said he has been assured by the Energy Department and Pentagon that the new nuclear warheads would not have to be tested. But he vowed to oppose appropriating any money for the testing some arms control specialists see as inevitable if the new warheads are built.

With the bunker-buster fight behind him, for good, he thinks, Hobson said he will fight in his remaining two years as subcommittee chairman to get more civilian nuclear power plants built and to overhaul the Army Corps of Engineers.

To assure his grandchildren will have the same quality of life he has enjoyed in this country, the 69-year-old Hobson said "we have to have strong, clean, relatively cheap power." To get it, the United States should not increase its dependence on foreign oil but put more nuclear power plants on line.

"But in order to build nuclear power plants, we've got to get a thing called a waste confidence rule on each plant as they go forward. You have to know what you're going to do with the waste. We need interim storage [of nuclear waste] of some sort to get these waste confidence reports so we can license these power plants. We can have cheap, green nuclear power in this country, but we need to solve the waste problem. We need a way to recycle the spent fuel."

On this topic, too, Hobson pulls no punches.

"They're going to go crazy when you publish this, but South Carolina would make a great spot for an interim depository for spent nuclear fuel, both civilian and military," with the Energy Department's Savannah River Site complex near Aiken -- a logical candidate because fences and other security measures are already in place.

Once the waste problem is solved, Hobson said "we need to do what the French did" and design one basic nuclear power plant and duplicate it around the country rather than build a bunch of different ones.

Next on Hobson's to-do list is a whole new blueprint for the Army Corps of Engineers to follow. He said the Corps has bitten off more than it can chew in past years, listing far more dams, levees and other projects than it could possibly complete.

In concert with the White House budget office, and probably with Hobson as well, although he did not stress this point, the Corps has just about completed its new blueprint. Hobson said it includes a vision of what the nation's waterways should look like in 20 years.

In contrast to the lawmaker who had planned to retire from public life a few years ago -- going so far as to sell to sell his condo -- Hobson, today, is back to being a man on a mission.

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