Monday, October 02, 2006


I love forests. New England, my new home, has no end of them. This time of year the trees are beginning to quake with fall color. Red and yellow branches are beginning to lash out of the green canopies that shroud this land. Soon the leaves will briefly dominate the hills in a quiet fire, then fall to the ground like ash, waiting for the embrace of snow.

My wife and I just completed a westward journey across the state of Massachusetts. We wound up in the small town of Stockbridge, near the New York border along the road to Albany. Stockbridge, Massachusetts is considered to be an American icon. It was dubbed as such by another American icon, Norman Rockwell, who painted American icons during America's most iconographic era. He spent many years in Stockbridge. The people and settings there were the subjects of many of his canvases that celebrated the American spirit.

We visited his museum. Every single painting on its walls were the originals of reproductions I'd seen hundreds of times. One painting that had been etched in my mind, long before seeing the original, was his depiction of a snowy Main Street in Stockbridge at Christmastime.

We walked around Stockbridge and took in Mr. Rockwell's view of America. There remain the small stores and quaint colonial houses from his Christmas painting. We stood across the street from them to find the viewpoint he occupied to create his famous masterpiece. Just behind us on that corner was St. Paul's Episcopal Church. I guess it's still a church -- I don't know -- the steeple is crowned with a copper chicken, not a cross. Perhaps the congregation dwindled down too far for the building to remain a church. I couldn't bring myself to ask how the chicken made its way up there. I'm sure it found its way to the top of the pecking order well after Mr. Rockwell's time.

- - -

As Autumn breaks, the chill of winter has begun to descend from the north. With the frost I have found myself contemplating a long, cold winter.

It's been five years since 9/11. During that time I have seen my country's lights pulse brightly and then dim, its shades drawn. The political landscape is enervated. I had hoped that we might find a new voice, a new beginning, a newfound patriotism; something that a new Rockwell might anxiously render on canvas to national acclaim. It hasn't happened. On 9/12, I placed myself outside the two governing parties of our country and took stock. It's five years later, and here's where I stand.

Our president might aim for moral clarity, but he offers little else. He recites well-worn bromides, assuming that he will be vindicated in the years to come. He stays the course, because he set it. We need more in a president. For all of President Bush's bold moves, it is striking how little vision there is behind them. There's been incompetent followup to get through the details; no comprehensible articulation of this country's worth and values; and little willingness to risk alienating his base to win this fight. Now his policy on torture has derailed whatever moral authority he had. I don't see a man who is leading. I, for one, do not feel led. Instead I feel dragged around by his transparent coterie of advisors. I feel numb.

One look at the other party offers little consolation. Democrats like Gore decry the Bush administration for fear mongering, who equate fighting terror with voting Republican. But then there's Gore's movie, and his own bromides on global warming. And there's Gore to begin with, still with us after losing six years ago to Governor Bush on the heels of the golden Clinton years. Still barking away, somehow considered still relevant in this era.

My option as a voter appears to be a false choice. Either I can vote Republican, lest we ignore the war on terror, or I can vote Democrat, lest we lose the planet to the sun. Our political culture is coarse and cramped with soundbites that have overshadowed eloquent debate. There are no Daniel Websters anymore, riveting packed galleries in the Senate chamber with soaring rhetoric expounding on the great issues of the age. No Lincoln-Douglas debates. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy stood on the back of a truck in Indianapolis quoting Aeschylus on the meaning of grief to angry black Americans. No more.

There are few genuine debates taking place in congress. There is little eloquence. There is mostly position-taking and attack. We find mostly 'where's the beef' and 'gotchya' politics. We've come nowhere after five years of war. If anything, we've devolved.

Now we're looking down the barrel at a nuclear Iran -- a nuclear religious death cult. What we need to counter this threat is a fresh approach, employing all of the weapons in our arsenal: military, diplomatic, economic and moral. We need a better international diplomat and politician than the President. Successful leaders are shrewd; they shape public opinion to their own ends. At this late date President Bush needs to throw a few curveballs. It may be unconventional, but he could have answered Ahmadinejad's letter from a few months ago, much like Lincoln answered Horace Greeley and other critics. The same with Chavez's blistering speech at the U.N. The President should articulate a tighly reasoned, forthright defense of Western values. He should do something stunningly bipartisan, and ignore the political fallout -- perhaps appoint Bill Clinton to some important task in the Middle East.

Bush's one-dimensional, 'I'm-a-man-of-principle' approach is failing. We have to mix things up like Nixon going to China, or Roosevelt being a traitor to his class. The challenges of this era demand it.

If anyone harbors any doubt about what the next real war proffers, read the Rand report Considering the Effects of a Catastrophic Terrorist Attack by Charles Meade and Roger Molander. It games-out a hypothetical nuclear terrorist attack on the Port of Long Beach, California. Long Beach is the second busiest seaport in the United States. It's in the Los Angeles region, handling 30 percent of U.S. shipping imports. The attack studies the short-term and long term effects of a ten kiloton Hiroshima-sized atomic device ground-bursted from within a shipping container on a pier. It examines the policy issues that would result, identifying the high-priority concerns for different stakeholder groups.

In a nutshell, all hell will break lose. The ripple effect into the global economy borders on apocalyptic. Just from one "small" nuke in a western port.

There has been a lot of debate here on ways to deal with Iran. Many think we should preempt. I think it might work, but only if we had the right leadership. I see no such leadership in Washington -- neither from the President or from Congress. It's a fool's errand to believe that the present leadership can marshal the political, civilian, military and international resources required to prevent the Party of God from nuclearizing. In essence, I think it's too late. The necessary isotopes can be purchased as well as produced within Iran. This has been true now for years. The game of prevention is over. Proliferation is here.

At this point, because we have weak government, a tail-biting political system and hollow allies, we're not in a position to take out Iran's nuclear program, let alone its regime. I've come to believe that if we preempt, utter disaster will ensue. And if Iran promulgates nuclear terror, disaster will also ensue. Preemption is not a strategy -- it's a last ditch Hail Mary pass.

Since I believe that's the case -- that we're on the verge of a terrifyingly new world, no matter what we do -- I think we should take the moral high ground. That means letting Iran take the low ground. Europe is too weak and corrupt to block Iran's threat. We're too sapped, too bereft of creative leadership. This isn't a nihilistic suicide wish on my part. It's a reality observed as coldly as anyone who advocates preemption. Given the absolute fog that shrouds Iran's nuclear program, who's the expert? Whose data is sound enough to stand the Iraq Test? Only great leadership might overcome this problem. We don't have it.

If preempting Iran is not a viable option in this political climate, a strategy of containment, fence-mending, alliance-building, and homeland protection may be the best we can do. Sometimes you have to wait on events. Diplomacy is all about patience and maneuver, requiring the kind of leadership strengths our president and congress lack.

My conclusion is as kitsch as Rockwell's paintings: I believe our spirit as free people can overcome the odds. It's not entirely rational, but it's where I find hope. There's plenty of room for doubt. But I have more faith this country can reinvent itself in the aftermath of a catastrophic attack -- far better than it can lead the world into a series of bungled, unsupported, desperate Hail Mary passes to stave off the inevitable. After 25 years, five presidents, a dozen congresses, countless U.N. sessions and the maturation of a hollow European Union, the free world has long since dropped the ball on nuclear proliferation. Now it all leads to Rand. Frankly, I can't see past Rand. I don't think anyone can.

For our country to lead again, we will apparently need to have our genesis forced upon us. Our response to what inevitably lies ahead may turn out to be our finest hour. It will be a call for greatness -- in ourselves, and in a new generation of true leaders. In order to regain greatness, we will have to take on monumental risks and sacrifices. We will have to do more than face-down our demons; we will have to personally fight them and rebuild a nation that short-circuits them. It will be then that we might redefine the meaning of kitsch patriotism, if the 21st century has a place for it at all.

That's the only way we'll be able to chase the chicken down from Rockwell's steeple.