As NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert said about the U.S. and Iraq on The Tonight Show, “The sword has been drawn into the air, and not to follow through – many believe – would be an act of impotence.” Then I recalled the words of Hans Blix when he said essentially we can send 250,000 troops and spend $80 billion to disarm Iraq or we can send 250 inspectors and spend $80 million to contain it. Drawing the sword and swinging it carry two very different consequences. Potency has a price – in dollars and blood.

And fear of impotency is no reason not to stand down. It’s like a scene from the brilliantly power-driven and culturally complex drama Kingpin on NBC, when a Mexican General in a meeting with a suave drug cartel family leader stands and drops his pants to show off his “potency.” Then, in walked his host’s wife, leaving the General looking red-faced and, well, anything but potent. Lesson: beware false bravado when you draw your sword. But beware even more the unsuspected things that are mightier than the sword.

Nonetheless, with so many resources already deployed, it’s hard to imagine a graceful stand-down by the U.S. There is an “air of inevitability” about this war, as may come to pass by the time these words are read.

The last time talk of an “air of inevitability” dominated prediction of outcomes was when Mr. Bush himself was running for the presidency.

Remember his “victory lap” through California before election day, while in reality it was Florida that would hang by a chad? The Rovian theory was that creating an air of “inevitability” would cause undecided voters to choose the candidate they “perceived” to be the winner – because everyone wants to be on the winning team. Let’s hope they get it right this time.

Because the first time the Bush team tried this tactic, a funny thing happened on the way to the ranch – more people voted for Al Gore. And so it was that our Commander-in-Chief danced the Texas two-step into the White House by judicial fiat just ten months before the nation would be plunged into a new age of darkness.

Now from the continued darkness comes another flash of the tiger’s eye from North Korea. As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker in January, “Before September 11th, when the Administration’s foreign-policy obsession was missile defense, it almost seemed to welcome the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea.” The column was tracing the roots of the current crisis and focused particularly on the genesis of Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” phrase, which some commentators have viewed as inciteful.

Speechwriter David Frum originated the phrase as the “Axis of Hatred” and specifically aimed it at Iraq, but Bush higher-ups changed the phrase to include Iran, and inexplicably North Korea, though – many believe – the addition was to add both a non-Muslim nation and a third leg to a rhetorical flourish.

Wrote Hertzberg, “As a rhetorical flourish, the axis of evil soared like an eagle. But in retrospect it more closely resembles a turkey, and the inclusion of North Korea, in particular, has begun to look uncannily like a chicken that in recent days has come home to roost.”

North Korea’s state newspaper, reported The New York Times, chooses another set of animal images, excoriating, “The U.S. should stop running amok just like a puppy knowing no fear of the tiger.” This came on the same day that the CIA reported North Korea probably has a 3-stage rocket capable of reaching the U.S. – and capable of carrying a payload.

“The Axis of Hatred” also became “The Axis of Evil,” writes David Frum in his new book, to add a sense of religious purpose to the War on Terror.

This gels with a recent article by Dana Milbank in February 10th’s Washington Post, “With war in Iraq looming [there’s that inevitability feeling], and much of the world opposed to his position, the president in recent weeks has adopted a strongly devotional tone, effectively reversing the precedent of the nation’s modern secular leaders [who] have generally been understated in their public expressions of faith, a tone set by Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian.”

If history has anything to teach, it is that religion and secular institutions of power do not mix. There is no stronger prescription for battle, if not full-scale war. But perhaps that’s this administration’s appeal to the mix.

Just last Wednesday, in the administration’s desperate attempt to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden (despite bin Laden’s reprobation of Saddam Hussein’s regime in his speech), the administration spoke of the “unholy alliance” between the two. Unholy?

But then again, this administration is anything but averse to breaking precedent. From its unprecedented secrecy to its Constitution-bending executive orders – or hell, from the very day it assumed office, “breaking precedent” could be seen as a hallmark of this administration.

Now the three most stabilizing multilateral institutions in the world may hang by a thread from perhaps the most striking broken precedent: that of a preemptive military strike policy.

Whatever these people are up to, and I mean “these people” in the most inclusive of terms, our generation has a vital obligation to pay attention to the details of the world’s plight so that we can teach our children – who will be paying for all this in perpetuity according to the president’s own precedent-breaking, deficit bulging budget – just what the hell was happening in these days and why.

How many more precedents is this administration willing to break? How many more will the press ignore? NBC’s Tim Russert in his appearance with Jay Leno extolled the virtues of democracy as he described the protesters outside the capitol the night of this year’s State of the Union, but then he admonished all dissenters to fall in line “once a decision is made.” Really? (Sorry, Tim, fellow “journalist,” but come hell or dirty bombs, this American will never surrender his right to free speech.) Remember Tim when the bombs start falling. If you want fair, balanced, or trusted news, your options are dwindling.

Bill Moyers’ NOW program on PBS is a good complement to the “fall in line, watch the bottom line” U.S. corporate news outlets. Last week, Moyers reported on the “expanded” Patriot Act bill – obtained and leaked by The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) – that would effectively convert the U.S. into a police state, including allowing extra-judicial surveillance and secret arrests of U.S. citizens.

Remarked CPI’s leader, who obtained the “Ashcroft-draft” from a Justice Department insider so frightened by it that she or he decided to leak it to warn Americans, “I’m afraid [the administration is] waiting for a war or something and then they’re gonna pop this baby out and then try to jam it through.”

He continued, saying that under the act, “they can come after you, get your credit card data, your library records, your Internet searching, everything. And they’ll decide whether or not you’re a suspect or not. Whether or not they like you. If you’re a disfavored political group, or from the wrong ethnic background, then you might become on the radar screen of some folks that you don’t know about, you can’t find out about, and they can do things. They [would] have – this is incredible power.”

You can hear his breathless panic. We might do well to hear a bit more, shake us up a bit. This stuff is real.

I know these issues are difficult in a school where every case quote must be signed and approved by the person quoted – not exactly investigative journalism, if you haven’t noticed – but now is the time to take off our blinders and start driving toward the tough questions – the questions that define our day, and maybe our generation – the questions that sanitized cases and sanitized news cannot answer.

Let’s table the stuff that a guest-speaker would only tell you in a closed-door classroom – the stuff that we may never know for sure. But we can ask. We can wonder. We can i
nvestigate and discuss. We must. The world we’re studying is lurching in some direction yet to be discerned. And it’s not enough to dismiss it to the fates.

After all, the guy in the center of this storm – some say in control of this storm – has a Harvard MBA.