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Surveying in the land of 'What If?'

President Bush made a quick visit this week to one of my favorite destinations: The land of "What If?" It's a place where I often spend time ruminating about potential events that could have a massive impact on American life.

But since many of the scenarios in this imaginary venue can seem scary or far-fetched, they don't get much consideration from government officials or the mainstream media.

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Our nation's chief executive raised a few eyebrows at his news conference by suggesting that outbreaks of the bird flu in the US might require a military response, and he wants Congress to give him authority to send in the troops so they can seal off affected areas and enforce quarantines. "The president," said Mr. Bush, "ought to have all ... assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant."

Alarmist rhetoric? Fearmongering prelude to a power grab? You can spin it any number of ways, but I'm glad Bush seems to have discarded the rose-colored glasses he was wearing in the days after hurricane Katrina.

When it comes to brainstorming potential threats to public health, safety, and homeland security, nobody should shy away from thinking the unthinkable. As the old saying goes, "Expect the worst, and be optimistic when it comes."

I hope the president and his advisers are planning some longer excursions into the land of What If? because there are plenty of other worst-case situations to be explored there.

For example, if Iraq slides into civil war and the Kurds decide their best option is to declare independence, how would the US react? The Kurds have been longtime allies in the effort to topple Saddam Hussein, but a Kurdish state would alarm Turkey and might spark a war. And what would our response be if the first official message from a new Kurdish state is, "Mr. Bush - are you with us or against us?"

The Kurds and the Shiites might be able to maintain their own territories, but what about all secular Sunni residents in the Baghdad area, the business people, teachers, and political moderates? If conditions became intolerable for middle class Iraqis and they saw no alternative but to flee the country, how many would seek refuge in the US? We've allowed thousands of people from Cuba and South Vietnam to resettle here during the past 40 years. If democracy in Iraq doesn't pan out, are we ready to accept a new wave of immigrants?

Unlikely, you say? Defeatist handwringing? Not at all. The president was right when he said everything needs to be on the table now. After 9/11 and Katrina, we should never again hear any elected official use the phrase, "Well, no one could have anticipated something like this."

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"Thinking the unthinkable" may not be a helpful phrase anymore because of its association with Herman Kahn and nuclear holocaust, but the concept should be mandatory throughout all levels of government, from disaster planning to foreign policy. And if people would feel more comfortable with a less-frightening term, here's my suggestion: Category 5 Brainstorming.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.


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