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Boxer, Fong in Opposite Camps on Armed Forces

Democratic senator has a reputation as a foe of military waste and a critic of big spending. GOP challenger, an Air Force reservist, wants to end what he sees as years of overzealous budget-cutting.


In 1970, a community activist and former stockbroker named Barbara Boxer led a drive to persuade Marin County voters to demand an end to the Vietnam War. Once the measure passed, her passionate opposition to the war led her to run for local office.

In 1971, a shy and obedient teenager from Oakland named Matthew Fong entered the Air Force Academy and swore allegiance to the United States and the commander in chief. He accepted the fact that his dreams of a military career might take him into combat in Vietnam.

A generation later the suburban peacenik and the would-be jet pilot are in a pitched contest for Boxer's U.S. Senate seat, offering distinctly differing views on military preparedness and the role of America in the post-Cold War world.

One candidate has made a reputation as a foe of military waste and a critic of claims often made in support of big-ticket weapon systems. The other would like to make a reputation rallying new support for the military after years of what he sees as overzealous budget-cutting.

Theirs is a classic debate over how the nation should support, govern and unleash its military power.

Democrat Boxer, after serving as a county supervisor, was elected to Congress in 1982 and gained attention for finding $7,600 coffeepots and $600 toilet seat covers hidden in the Defense Department budget--discoveries that led to purchasing reforms. She opposed the costs of the Stealth bomber and the Patriot missile.

She also opposed U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and sponsored an unsuccessful effort to require a president to get congressional approval before ordering covert action in foreign countries.

As a senator, she has toned down her comments on military issues--and indeed was quickly supportive of the air strikes ordered last month by President Clinton against alleged terrorist strongholds. But Boxer has steadfastly urged cuts in military spending so that money can be redirected to domestic needs.

To Boxer, every expensive weapons system represents a lost opportunity to increase federal support for education, medical care or health research. In the House of Representatives, she served on the Armed Services Committee, but in the Senate her interests have been decidedly domestic; at present, she serves on no military or foreign policy committees.

Boxer likes to quote President Dwight D. Eisenhower from a speech near the end of his second term: "If we don't take care of our children, it doesn't matter how many tanks or missiles we have. We won't be a strong nation."

A list of weapons systems Boxer has voted against fills more than a page. Last week Boxer voted against a proposal for a scaled-down, $45-billion version of the so-called Star Wars plan to intercept long-range missiles aimed at the United States.

Republican Fong, now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, called Boxer's vote "irresponsible and dangerous." He accused her of endangering national security by refusing to back a plan to defend America against missiles launched by rogue nations or terrorist organizations.

"The intent to hurt the United States and its citizens already exists, and the technology to harm us with advanced weaponry such as ballistic missiles is rapidly developing," Fong said. "Barbara Boxer is sticking her head in the sand."

Fong Hopes to Use Missile Issue

Like other Republican challengers this fall, Fong hopes to use the missile issue to prove that his opponent is soft on defense. He travels to Washington this week to give a foreign policy address in which the issue is likely to figure prominently.

Boxer fired back that the missile plan favored by Fong was not supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has failed early scientific testing and could require the United States to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

"We should not be going to a system that has been failing tests and could lead to a more dangerous world," Boxer said.

On the stump, Fong has repeatedly blasted Boxer and the Clinton administration for cutting military spending too deeply and leaving warplanes grounded for lack of spare parts, Army battalions and Navy ships inadequately staffed, and morale and combat readiness plummeting.

Boxer believes the nation's current military budget is "just about right" and notes that her position is supported by Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This isn't Matt Fong vs. Barbara Boxer. It's Matt Fong vs. Barbara Boxer and the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Boxer said.

Much of the Boxer-Fong disagreement stems from opposing views about the level of urgency involved in developing a missile defense system.

Boxer, like many Democrats, believes that the country is not going to be vulnerable to missile attack in the near future and that there is sufficient time to continue testing to see if a defense system is scientifically possible before committing to building it. She has supported continued funding for testing.

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