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Superpower alienates internal allies

"The federal government has trained and equipped our troops for Iraq. But we haven't done the same thing for our first responders at home _ our police and fire and emergency personnel. If the country goes to war, we are not prepared. I'm concerned about bioterrorism, about chemical warfare. Or lone terrorists. It's a scary set of circumstances."

The somber warning at the National League of Cities' yearly Congressional City Conference in Washington, came from Karen Anderson, the group's immediate past president and mayor of Minnetonka, Minn.

Cities, as a practical matter, provide local defense _ against fire, crime, storms. "Naturally, we're the people who show up," said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., the current NLC president. But, he added, "If we have to buy bioterror suits, provide special training, deal with risks coming from without U.S. borders like materials entering my port from foreign flag vessels, that's a different issue."

The federal government, charges DeStefano, "is walking away from its partnership with us" by failing to compensate the billions of dollars that the cities are spending _ or should be spending _ on homeland security.

The cities are bitter that their homeland security needs received just $1.2-billion in Congress' 2003 budget. They're urging an immediate $4-billion supplemental appropriation. And they see a kind of fiscal shell game in the administration's fiscal year 2004 budget, which purports to spend $3.5-billion for homeland defense but actually reduces overall federal law enforcement and disaster relief recovery funds very sharply. The country's municipal officials are, to put it mildly, feeling on the "outs" and very unhappy about it.

Just consider what they propose. To pull the country out of its economic slump, they favor $75-billion in short-term stimulus measures, including $10-billion in extended jobless benefits and a $65-billion one-time tax rebate helpful mostly to low- and middle-income families. They'd have Washington shell out $20-billion for first responder training and special infrastructure projects _ water systems, law enforcement, transportation.

And in outreach to the states, many of which are now forced to cut back on local government aid, the mayors endorse $50-billion in unrestricted federal grants to state governments for every area from school repairs to Medicaid.

All brave and thoughtful (and expensive) ideas. Yet it's obvious the Bush administration is marching off in a diametrically opposite direction, showing about as much consideration for the country's own states and cities as the historic allies it's scorning in U.N. Security Council debates over Iraq.

Instead of broad, targeted antirecession aid, the administration would favor the already wealthy with gargantuan tax cuts. And it is intent on an array of cuts in state and local aid, including shifting Medicaid burdens to the states, cutbacks in housing assistance and reductions in child-care and after-school programs. Plus tightening of requirements for the earned-income tax credit that's critically important to poor families.

America's cities and towns, DeStefano argues, are "energized" to fight for their cause. "We represent the foundations of health and democracy in our country. We're really the place where ideas and values are contested without being defined by party label, and the focus on incumbency that plays out in districting and how campaign money gets raised."

Yet as brave as that claim may be, the cities face a tough challenge right now. Should they go beyond fighting for an even break in federal appropriations? Should they pinpoint the threats to their future, leaping into foreign policy issues, starting with Iraq?

More than 100 city councils have already adopted antiwar resolutions. From homeland security to national funding priorities, the legitimate urban concerns are huge.

My guess: Soon it will become apparent that foreign and domestic policy can't be separated. Especially with a polarizing president who's indifferent to a reasoned, bipartisan foreign policy. America's home towns, deeply threatened, will need to join the debate on how superpower America conducts itself, how it treats the world _ and its own communities _ in the 21st century.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group