This morning I and about 25 other reporters had breakfast with Representative Ike Skelton, the newly-empowered chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Skelton is not like your average member of Congress. He is an intellectual as much as a politician, capable of transitioning from a feel-good anecdote from his district in rural Missouri to a dissertation on geo-political strategy -- and I mean strategy with a capital "S".
Over a $30 plate of soggy eggs, burnt bacon and mushy potatos, I didn't pick up a shred of what reasonably can be called news, yet I learned three very unexpected things.
- The fruits of Congressional pork won the Battle of Midway in World War II (who knew?)
- If the NATO expedition to Afghanistan fails, the geo-strategic winner is... (I'll get to that a bit later)
- Drought is killing the livelihoods of dairy farmers in Missiouri (natch)
To start from the top, Skelton was asked about the amount of pork contained in a recent version of this year's supplemental bill for emergency war spending. He didn't exactly defend the added largesse, but noted that if wasn't for Congressional plus-ups, the US Navy would have lost the Battle of Midway. (A big "huh???" was scratched in my notebook.)
Luckily, I happened to be seated next to Otto Kreisher, the veteran of the Copley News Service bureau in Washington DC, but more importantly -- as an ex-naval officer -- a known expert on all matters maritime. A moment after the breakfast ended, I turned to Otto and asked, "So how did Congressional pork win the Battle of Midway."
Otto, of course, knew the full history: It was the Great Depression. Congress wanted some jobs programs. Aircraft carriers would mean A LOT of jobs. The navy didn't want them, believing the old ships of the line battleships would win the next naval war. But Congress overrode their concerns and paid for them anyway.
Like I said, not very newsy. But very interesting. If you read this blog and my posts about MurthaFest, you'll know that I am inclined to challenge the legislative system that creates anonymous earmarks. So Skelton made me think a little.
And then there was the part about NATO's ongoing struggles in Afghanistan. Skelton noted with some aggravation that only four NATO countries -- the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and the US -- allow their forces to operate in Afghanistan without restriction. Skelton seemed very concerned that the NATO deployment could end up a disaster. And then he said this:
"If NATO is seen as a loser in Afghanistan and things fall apart and NATO becomes a shell and seen as ineffective or collapses ... who benefits? Think about this."
It took a few moments for the reporters in the room to realize that he wasn't being rhetorical. He wanted us to answer the question. (Uh ... the Warsaw Pact?)
Again, it was Otto who had the answer: "Well there's no more Soviet Union, but is it Russia?" he said.
"You got it," Skelton said.