Straight shooter

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I recently attended the annual Newspaper Association of America convention in New York. Highlights included a live satellite interview with Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of our armed forces in Iraq.

Petraeus played a key role for the military in the early phases of the Iraq War before becoming the top commander in Iraq this year. In 2003, he commanded the 101st Airborne Division, critical in the initial invasion of Iraq. It took the central Iraq cities of Najaf, Hiallah and Karbala before occupying southern Baghdad. It later went on to take control of the northern region of the country.

Petraeus was then put in charge of training and equipping the Iraqi military, an assignment he finished in September 2005. In February 2007 Petraeus stood beneath a shimmering crystal chandelier in one of Saddam Hussein's opulent former palaces when he took command of the tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The way ahead will be hard, and there undoubtedly will be many tough days," said Petraeus at the handover-of-command ceremony as he became the third U.S. commander in the Iraq War. "But, as I recently told members of the U.S. Senate, hard is not hopeless."

Petraeus has been in the Army since 1974. His assignments before Iraq included tours of duty in Bosnia, Haiti and Germany. His various posts have included being first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), assistant chief of staff for operations of the NATO Stabilization Force and deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Interagency Counter-Terrorism Task Force in Bosnia.

The 54-year-old Petraeus has a bachelor's degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He earned both a master's degree and a doctorate from Princeton University.

Petraeus, whose appointment by the president was announced in early January and approved by the Senate later in the month, assumed four-star general status as he took command of the roughly 135,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq.

"We will have to share the burdens and move forward together. If we can do that and if we can help the people of Iraq, the prospects of success are good," he said at the command swap, a part of the administration's overhaul of Iraq policy. "Failing that, Iraq will be doomed to continued violence and civil strife."

He submitted himself to a number of questions from a panel and the audience and was well-received. The consensus was to give him the time and resources to deal with the situation and to then review his progress and recommendations no sooner than this fall. I was favorably impressed with his answers and demeanor.

We also heard a welcome and update on New York City (one in five New Yorkers is an immigrant) by Mayor Mike Bloomberg. New governor Eliot Spitzer of New York and outgoing governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas entertained and informed us on the benefits, obstacles and challenges of being a political leader. It was a civil exchange of views and comments.

Huckabee suggested to Spitzer that "your term will be defined by how you deal with unplanned events" -- a version of Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers in human history who is often credited for the following guidelines to those who face a difficulty in life, whether financial or otherwise:

"You see, it's not what happens to you in life that counts. Rather it's how you deal with each obstacle, accident and challenge that defines you."

Cassandra v. Cassandra: What's the biggest threat we face on this planet? Consult friends, colleagues, editorialists, politicians and U.N. ambassadors. Demand a straight answer -- many threats may be big, but only one can be the biggest. The answer, of course, is "global something."

But is it terrorism, or is it warming? I'm no pollster, but where I hang out, those two are definitely the front-runners. And they are mutually inconsistent.

If the planet is indeed going to hell, these two roads are so sharply divergent that no one planet can take them both. Look at it this way: Al-Qaida could halt global warming a lot faster than Al Gore. Take one -- just one -- quite small nuclear gadget. Stick it in a container and load it on a ship. Detonate in the port of Jeddah, Haifa, New York or Shanghai. It doesn't have to make a big bang. A fizzle that disperses radionucleotides will do. Global trade will freeze, and the global economic depression that ensues will push energy consumption down 30 percent. Release of a smallpox virus bioengineered to evade the old vaccine would deliver a 50 percent decrease in global carbon emissions. At least.

How likely is this, and how soon might it happen? According to my computer models -- too complicated to explain fully here -- it could well happen, sometime, maybe soon, or maybe not soon at all.

I also have a PowerPoint display showing that ever since the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 the climate of global terror has been getting steadily hotter. The average temperature rose steadily throughout the 1990s. In 2001 it reached the curve in the hockey stick, and took off. It's been whirling out of control ever since. -- Excerpt from Peter Huber's column in Forbes magazine.

Incidentally, put me in the camp of global terrorism being the biggest threat.

I attended the commencement for Washington University in St. Louis where my daughter-in-law (a Southeast Missouri State University graduate) received her master's degree in Germanic languages and literature. She also had the distinction of having the longest name listed in the program: Victoria Alexandra Vygodskaia-Rust. We are very proud of her. Over 12,000 people were in attendance for the 2,622 graduates. My name ended up in the printed program as well, being one of 633 graduates in the class of 1957.

Gary Rust is chairman of Rust Communications.

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