The Washington Post leads with a shootout between U.S. and Pakistani troops along the Afghan border. One American soldier was wounded. The Los Angeles Times and USA Today lead with, and the others front, President Bush down in Crawford, fielding questions about North Korea. "This is not a military showdown," he says. "This is a diplomatic showdown." The Wall Street Journal, online at least, leads with the Dow's miserable year, including its worst December—it lost 6.2 percent—since 1931. The New York Times goes with the ever-expanding U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. Another 15,000 soldiers are on the way.
The WP is, for some reason, alone in reporting the dust-up between U.S. soldiers and their supposed allies, the Pakistanis. The details are sketchy, but the story right now is that a Pakistani border scout—or someone wearing a border scout uniform (?)—opened fire on U.S. troops along the Afghan border, wounding one. The Americans then called in an F-16, which dropped a 500-pound bomb on the scout and his compatriots, effectively ending the conflict. At least two Pakistanis were killed. The incident again raises questions about the sympathies of some Pakistani soldiers. Do their hearts still belong to the Taliban? U.S. and Pakistani officials say, as one might expect, No.
President Bush apparently felt the need to defend his strangely dovish stance on North Korea, answering questions for the first time since the trouble started two weeks ago, according to the papers. With the parking lot of a gas station/diner as a backdrop—he "autographed hat brims and ate a cheeseburger," the Post reports—Bush said force was justified in Iraq because "we don't know whether or not [Saddam] has a nuclear weapon." The Post reminds us that Colin Powell said on This Week on Sunday that North Korea already has one or two nukes. No one reminded Bush. All the papers—the Post most aggressively—take aim at the clay pigeon that is George W's wartime logic.
The president's new gambit is that an attack by Saddam Hussein would "cripple" the U.S. economy. "A Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is a threat to the security of the American people," he says in the NYT.
The WSJ presents an exhaustive list of economic indicators from 2002, almost all of them dispiriting. There's the "sharp, surprise drop in consumer confidence" in December, the "wobbly" markets, the "checkered last-minute holiday shopping period, giving investors little incentive to put fresh money to work." As for the sour markets themselves, an LAT fronter questions their abilities as forecasters of the overall economy. "An old joke is that Wall Street has correctly predicted 12 of the last six recessions."
The NYT's lead on the buildup of troops in the Persian Gulf is indicative of the slowness of the news day. (The LAT and the Post ran troop buildup leads over the weekend.) The new item is that the Third Infantry Division in Georgia has been ordered to the Persian Gulf, making it the first division—meaning foot soldiers, armor, aviation, and artillery units—to join the fray. Ultimately, the American force, as indicated in the Pentagon's "classified" war plan, will number 250,000, about half the manpower used in 1991, according to the Times.
Nine northeastern states have filed a legal challenge to the Bush administration's partial rollback of the Clean Air Act, according to a NYT fronter. The group's ringleader, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, argues that the new rules—which will allow aging plants to upgrade without installing anti-pollution devices—"will bring more acid rain, more smog, more asthma and more respiratory disease to millions of Americans." The legal argument in the suit seems to be that the rules have to be issued legislatively—and approved by Congress—rather than administratively by the EPA.
On the WP op-ed page, George Will cheerily predicts that "2003 may usher in an era of potential lethality without precedent in seven centuries." Among other things, he neatly picks apart Donald Rumsfeld's argument that the U.S. can simultaneously take on Iraq and North Korea. The latter has an army of 1.2 million, three times that of the former. "Today the U.S. Army numbers 484,551, down from 710,821 in 1991, when 540,000 U.S. troops were assembled for the task of expelling Iraq from Kuwait." The American numbers come up somewhat short, even if only 250,000 go to Iraq this time around.
Finally, the LAT, in flowery prose, checks in with the judges at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena as they select, using 14 criteria, the rosiest of the rosy. "The judges' decisions will make or break float-designers' careers, sunder dreams or unite an entire city." (Puts Iraq into perspective, doesn't it?) The three judges—"a renowned parade producer, a furniture showroom designer and a florist to the elite"—spend 66 hours poring over the 51 floats. Cattiness is bound to creep in. "The creativity, the animation certainly was deserving," says one judge. "But the floral part? Just what I don't want at my funeral."