Today's Papers

Style of the Times

The Washington Post leads with the problems plaguing the Pentagon’s anti-missile defense system, a legacy of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dream. The Los Angeles Times lead exposes the government’s gross underestimation of the flow of cocaine out of Colombia and other drug-producing countries. Revised estimates on global drug-trafficking are expected to shake up U.S. drug policy for years to come. The New York Times leads with the unexpected decline in Medicare spending.

The WP describes a “stinging” 40-page report, submitted to Congress by a independent panel appointed by the Defense Department, that criticizes the government for over-optimism about its ability to develop interceptors, or “kill vehicles,” that would destroy incoming ballistic missiles by colliding with them at supersonic speed. According to the WP, the program is fraught with technical challenges and political pressures. The Clinton administration and congressional Democrats, less gung-ho about the program than the Republicans, have reluctantly acknowledged that a “limited system” might be necessary sooner rather than later to protect the United States from such “rogue nations” as North Korea and Iran. But is the multi-billion-dollar effort still a pie-in-the-sky dream? Perhaps. The WP points out that despite a successful interception last month, there has been no integrated test of the program’s component parts: the kill vehicles, radars, and controlling computer networks. And it remains to be seen whether the kill vehicles will be able to withstand the shock loads of the booster rockets being designed to carry them into space.

The LAT reports that U.S. drug-intelligence officials have admitted that their methods for measuring drug production might be “seriously flawed.” According to those officials, next year’s estimates are likely to “skyrocket.” Two unnamed government sources suggested to the LAT that estimates of cocaine production in Colombia alone could triple. Where is all that cocaine going? Some officials think it’s going to Europe; others think it’s coming here and that Americans are using more cocaine than previously feared. Not everyone agrees, of course: The director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA is a cynical, outside dissenter. “More cocaine in the U.S.? Hard to believe,” he said. “Where are all the corpses?” Many skeptics think the estimates are little more than “guesswork” used by the administration to get more money out of Congress.

According to the NYT, Medicare spending has declined by one percent in the last year, from $213.6 to $212 billion. The slight drop is attributed to congressional cuts, low inflation, and efforts to weed out fraud. “The decline in Medicare spending is a phenomenal development,” said a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, which, the NYT reports, had predicted that the government would spend $19 billion more on Medicare last year than it actually did.

Both the WP and LAT front stories on the violence in Chechnya, and the NYT runs an Op-Ed written by the prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin. The WP story details Russian attacks on civilians and highlights the plight of refugees.It reports that Chechan officials estimate that 4,000 civilians have been killed. (The paper admits that the figure cannot be checked independently.) The LAT, on the other hand, focuses on the growing tension between Russia and the West and on nationalist support for the Russian military’s operations. In the NYT Op-Ed, Prime Minister Putin appeals to the American public and denies that Russia is targeting civilians. “American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering. The very opposite is true. … Our land and air forces strive to target only opposing armed forces.”

The WP fronts the likely mobilization of American farm and business lobbies to push Congress to adopt the legislation necessary to open trade with China, should the United States and China strike a deal that would bring China into the World Trade Organization. The NYT stuffs a related story on the U.S.-China WTO negotiations, which had stagnated before the Chinese prime minister intervened yesterday. The LAT fronts a report from Seattle, the site of the WTO’s November meeting, where the trade debate is already heating up. Boeing would like to get China–one of the world’s fastest growing jet markets–into the WTO, but U.S. unions are opposed to China’s entry until it allows independent unions and improves general working conditions.

The NYT fronts the discovery that South Korea is trying to develop longer-range ballistic missiles, prompting concern over a possible arms race between North and South Korea. The United States, which provides Seoul the military assistance it needs for strategic deterrence against North Korea, has been pressing North Korea to restrain its missile program. (After all, our anti-missile defense program might be on the rocks. See above.)

“low” and behold

: William Safire laments the end of an era in his “On Language” column in the NYT Magazine. In the latest edition of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, the guide for writers and editors of the lauded paper, the capital letter has been taken down a peg. Safire explains: “We are guided: ‘It is President Lamm (without a given name) in the first reference to the president of the United States.’ Note: not ‘the current President,’ with a capital P.” Also losing caps are “founding fathers” and “the king,” in “God save the King.” The country might not feel the immediate effects of the new rule, but with trickle-down style there’s sure to be a sea change on the way.