AUSTIN, Texas -- Here we are playing hawks and doves again on the matter on Iraq -- war or no war? -- with particularly peppy exchanges from our more excitable brethren on the right concerning "appeasement" and lack of patriotism on the part of anyone who isn't ready to nuke Baghdad now. Bubba and Joe Bob have a question: "Why don't we git Oh-sama Bin first?"

I bring this up because it seems to me what the right wing is fond of describing as "the media elites" are so absorbed in their own tong warfare, they quite forget the American people have a great deal of uncommon good sense. Does life in Washington, D.C., actually resemble an endless round of "Crossfire," or does it just seem that way from the boonies?

At last count, we were already involved in military actions in seven countries, counting Colombia, which is either a different set of terrorists or a civil war. Seems like that's a lot on our plate now. Under the new Bush doctrine of "unilaterally determined pre-emptive self-defense," we get to go around attacking anyone we want without provocation. Not so much as a "Remember the Maine!" or a Tonkin Gulf resolution.

Did anybody ever get to vote on "unilaterally determined pre-emptive self-defense?" According published reports, the administration is also contemplating the use of earth-penetrating nuclear weapons in Iraq. Whatever happened to the "no first-strike policy?" -- did anyone ever get to vote on that? Has anyone studied the consequences of violating it?

Hard to find a soul in this country who doesn't think getting rid of Saddam Hussein is a good idea, but there are lots of people wondering why it's up to us to do it, and also asking, "What happens then?" Given our experience with George W. as governor, that's a particularly relevant question. Not that it's on par with a nuclear first-strike, but Texas now faces a $7 billion deficit and rising. As governor, Bush inherited a surplus, pushed through two big tax cuts and left virtually nothing in the Rainy Day Fund, so now we're not just broke, but in the hole. As witness the case of the charter schools in Texas, the man does have a habit of coming up with not-very-bright ideas and then wandering off to leave someone else to clean up the mess.

Speaking of cleaning up messes, how smart is it to get involved in a war with no allies? Canada announced Tuesday it won't support a war. That means, among other things, we have to pay for all of it ourselves, unlike the Persian Gulf War. Our fiscal house is not in good order now. Bush and Congress both blew the surplus in record time and will leave us with $742 billion and rising added to the national debt by the end of the decade. That's without a war.

Joseph Nye argues in his new book, "The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone," that anti-Americanism thrives on the perception that we don't give a rat's behind how the rest of the world feels about anything. That's the famous "arrogance" for which we get criticized.

On that count, a war with Iraq could play right into terrorist hands. It's apparent that our ally Saudi Arabia has a far stronger connection to Sept. 11 than our enemy Saddam Hussein, so attacking Hussein makes us look like hypocrites willing to sell out our foreign policy for oil. That we'd also have to kill a whole of lot of innocent Iraqis (next guy who uses the words "precision bombing" has to eat them) should count for more than it probably does with all those hard-nosed Bush foreign policy advisers who have never seen war.

The ideological struggle over foreign policy -- unilateralism versus internationalism -- is in danger of becoming one of those futile -ism fights, where people get so engaged in putting down their opponents, they lose sight of reality. We used to give an award for it in the Texas Legislature: "If He Votes Yes, Then I Vote No."

It's smarter to stick with what works. Life is not "Crossfire" -- there are more than two sides. So is there a better way? Nye thinks there is.

Since terrorism flourishes in the "failed states," why not support international efforts to get these wretched places on their feet? There was a poll of foreign affairs experts and scholars at the end of the 20th century, and it found widespread agreement that the single most effective American foreign policy effort of the century was the Marshall Plan. Seems to me the lesson of Sept. 11 is that we cannot afford to ignore what the rest of the world thinks.

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