AUSTIN -- Seems like every year at the end of summer there's this sense of coming back from somewhere, whether we've gone anywhere or not. Whatever the summer pattern is -- a swim, the kids, a stroll --- it's as though we sort of blink and there's the world again, still there. Very much still there.

I suppose if you're George W. Bush, the world never does go away no matter how long you spend on vacation; it just sort of camps at the end of your driveway like Cindy Sheehan. Those of us who study politics and the media got to watch Cindy Sheehan being slimed by the right-wing attack machine -- hey, no free passes just because you're a mom whose kid was killed in Iraq. We also get to watch left-wing PR people exploit her grief, because you can't even be for peace without public relations anymore. This is The World, after all.

Check back in on the world and find the same people making the same arguments about Iraq -- glass is half-empty, glass is half-full; things are better, things are worse; is not, is so. Meantime, the odometer of war keeps clicking higher no matter who makes the arguments or who hears them -- 1,800 dead Americans, uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqis. Odd glimpses in the rearview mirror of reporting, "attacks on U.S. forces back up to over 70 a day . . . ," "the growing violence of recent weeks . . . ." Sen. Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, counts "more dead, more wounded, less electricity in Iraq, less oil being pumped in Iraq, more insurgency attacks, more insurgents coming across the border, more corruption in government."

President Bush says the best way to honor the dead is by getting more of them killed for the same cause, whatever it is. Democracy in Iraq, I think. Oops. Except for women. Women didn't come out too well in the new Iraqi constitution. I'm really sorry, I know only a feminist would bring up an awkward subject like this, and I understand being a feminist is just so passe, and absolutely no one cares about women's issues anymore, and if I would just bother to keep up I wouldn't embarrass myself by being so pitifully old hat, so not the bee's knees, as these young people say today. On the other hand, moving the age of consent for marriage back to 9 is sort of twenty-three skiddoo itself. Iraqi women have had full civil, legal and property rights for 25 years now. Nine years old. Not a step in the right direction. Really.

Afghanistan seems to be going south, too. Guess they're getting a little tired of being occupied.

Little things are still discouraging in the world: The papers report, "A top Army contracting official who criticized a large, noncompetitive contract with the Halliburton Company for work in Iraq was demoted Saturday for what the Army called poor job performance."

Fortunately for us all, a boffo display of high comedy is being provided by our new ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Charm John Bolton. Many of us had high hopes for Bolton from the beginning, since what could be more rife with antic possibilities than appointing a tactless, rude, mean, angry, clumsy s.o.b. who ticks off everyone he deals with to be ambassador? Even better, make this mannerless churl ambassador to a world body that runs on endless delicatesse and ever-so-solicitous concern for the cultural sensitivities of absolutely everybody. At first, this promising laff riot couldn't get off the ground. Bolton was such an obvious disaster as U.N. ambassador that even the Senate refused to confirm him, so Bush had to wait until Congress left town to make a "recess appointment," good only until a new Congress in January 2007. Meantime, Bolton is already tearing up the pea-patch.

Britain is leading a reform effort already endorsed by 175 other countries. Britain, which used to be our ally, has put forth a concise document containing a plan for reforming the U.N. and carrying forward with its goals to eradicate poverty. Bolton has proposed 750 changes in Britain's 36-page draft plan. One of his proposals is to delete the phrase "respect for nature" from a set of core values that supposedly unites the nations of the world: respect for human rights, freedom, equality, tolerance, multilateralism and respect for nature. The phrase "respect for nature" does not commit the U.S. to any legal or financial obligation. Bolton just doesn't like it.

I say, let's put it to a vote, a national referendum. Are we, the American people, in favor of "respect for nature" -- as long as it doesn't put any legal or financial obligations on us -- or not? Katrina?

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