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Between father and son

SOMETIMES I wonder what it must be like when the presidential son comes to Kennebunkport for a visit. Does George the Younger tell George the Elder what he tells the country? Does he say that we are safer with Saddam in prison than in power? Does he insist that we are better off having overthrown the dictator rather than containing him? I suspect it might be just a splash awkward. After all, it was dad who decided not to topple the Iraqi when he was on the run. It was George the 41st who believed that the chaos might be worse than containment. When another and another car bomb goes off in Baghdad, does this most discreet father ever want to say: I told you so?

Nevertheless, the president's insistence that the world is safer without Saddam is a powerful political position for one reason: It can't be disproved. There is simply no way to rerun the past year and do a double-blind crossover study of what would have happened if we hadn't invaded Iraq.

Are we better off? Compared to what? Are we safer than we would have been with a long, continuing pressure of world forces? Safer than if we'd focused on Al Qaeda instead?

For that matter, who is safer? The people Saddam persecuted? Surely. But the 1,000 American soldiers who died? The 20,000 Iraqis?

And, if that math is perplexing, no one can truly calculate safety without seeing the future. Are we safer for having taken our eye off Iran and North Korea? Safer for taking our dollars away from homeland security? Are we recruiting more enemies than we are defeating? Will we only know when and if there is another attack?

What? Who? When? Bush stands before the United Nations and every other political forum and states with certainty that Iraq is on the way to being "secure, democratic, federal, and free." Kerry charges that "terrorists are pouring across the border" and calls the invasion a "crisis of historic proportions."

But most Americans have no way to either refute or affirm the central question raised: Are we safer? Indeed, in the face of so many troubling unknowns and such fearful uncertainties, facts fall by the wayside. We are left relying on our beliefs, including our beliefs about human nature, about the way the world works.

These beliefs reflect what George Lakoff has described as the two different worldviews of conservatives and liberals. A linguist by training and an ardent "reframer" of progressives politics, Lakoff describes the great divide as related less to political ideology than to child-raising models. Conservatives subscribe to the "strict father model" while liberals abide by the "nurturant parent model."

In a small handbook for progressives -- with the unfortunate name "Don't Think of an Elephant" -- he draws a line from the moral values of the strict father family to foreign policy in the starkest terms: "Good and evil are locked in a battle. . . . Only superior strength can defeat evil and only a show of strength can keep evil at bay." This is the language that Bush uses against evildoers and in his unshakable defense of the war in Iraq.

Nurturant parents have every bit as much at stake in protecting their children and their country. They have no illusions about empathizing with terrorists who behead their captives. But they have a (forgive me) nuanced view of the world in which security is not just calculated by body counts but also by the changing minds of those who can become either tomorrow's terrorists or democrats.

Most Americans carry both models in their minds, but in times of trouble they fall back to the protection of the strictest of fathers. As Bill Clinton once warned, "When people are uncertain, they would rather have somebody who is wrong and strong than somebody who is weak and right." That is precisely Kerry's dilemma.

I think the war in Iraq is a dangerous distraction from the war on terror. The president's rosy view is as fanciful as his Mission Accomplished. But he has framed the issue of security so powerfully that many Americans can hardly hear the din of suicide bombs.

Are we safer? At the end of her convention speech Laura Bush talked about a time when schoolchildren were told to "duck and cover" under their desks in case of nuclear war. She said, "We need to explain that because of strong American leadership in the past we don't hide under our desks anymore."

What she forgot is that the safety drills the government sponsored for frightened children were as phony as they were reassuring. Now we have another duck and another cover story. Maybe father knew best.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is 

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