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Network broadcasts of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament will probably be pre-empted by the goings-on in a saddening sort of Mideast Regional. Coverage of a variety of nonsports events has been getting bumped all along the road to a Final Four made up of the United States, Britain, Spain, and Iraq.

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Sure smells like a plan. When George W. Bush implemented the all-Iraq, all-the-time strategy that brought us to this point, things were going so badly for his administration that he needed the mass distraction that the buildup to war has surely brought. There were the falling markets: The Dow Jones closed at 11,022 after Bush’s second week in office; a prewar boost this week put the market at around 8,000; the NASDAQ has fallen from 2,872 to the mid-1,300s over the same time. And the stock scandals. The biggest involved Enron, which owned the plane Bush flew around in throughout the 2000 presidential campaign. When Enron declared bankruptcy amid stock-scandal revelations in December 2001, it was the biggest such filing in U.S. history—but only until WorldCom filed in July 2002. The market busts trickled down well past Wall Street. On Christmas Eve 2002, the government stopped publication of the Mass Layoffs Statistics Report, a monthly factory-closings update compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The final report showed that there were 2,150 mass layoffs in November 2002, putting 240,028 workers in U.S. plants out of work. There are no signs the economy is ready to rebound. Bush inherited a record budget surplus when he took office; the White House projected a $304 billion shortfall for this year, but Bush’s estimate failed to include any costs of the Iraq attack. But nobody really cares about the economy come wartime.

Iraq has likewise overwhelmed any concern over this administration’s record on the environment and health policy. In his first year on the job, Bush lowered the federal standard for arsenic in drinking water. Last summer, he dismissed a study in which his own Environmental Protection Agency found that humans contribute to global warming, saying, “I’ve read the report put out by the bureaucracy.” And in August, he dubbed his plan to give more control of America’s woodlands to the logging industry the “Healthy Forests Initiative.” During the last session of Congress, the Senate killed Bush’s bid to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil harvesting. Bush’s latest budget proposal calls for oil companies to lease up to 600,000 virgin acres on the refuge and to begin drilling in 2005. The Bush administration is currently working against the development of the World Health Organization’s International Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which would impose restrictions on international tobacco marketing similar to those in place domestically and, by WHO estimates, would save millions of non-American lives per year.

The encroachments on civil liberties are lost in the mix, too. If Osama bin Laden, who’s been on the FBI’s Most Wanted list about as long as Dark Side of the Moon was on Billboard’s album chart, really hates our country for its freedoms, this administration has given him less and less to hate. In the summer of 2001, Bush quietly pushed for a federal regulation to permit religious charities, namely the Salvation Army, to discriminate against homosexual employees and still receive federal funding. The Customs Service and FBI recently admitted that they worked together last September to steal a FedEx package containing an unclassified FBI report that an Associated Press reporter in Manila had sent to a colleague in D.C. In October 2001, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Americans “need to watch what they say” in response to ABC talk-show host Bill Maher’s questioning the amount of courage required to fire a cruise missile at a target hundreds of miles away. Maher lost his job. In June 2002, Ohio State students reported being taken into custody after standing silently with their backs to Bush as he delivered a commencement address. In February 2003, police arrested 61-year-old Stephen Downs at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, N.Y., after he refused to take off a “Give Peace a Chance” T-shirt he’d purchased earlier in the day at the mall. Downs’ son took off his anti-attack shirt and was not arrested. Libraries in Santa Cruz, Calif., now post notices that because of passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the FBI will have easier access to customers’ checkout habits. Last week, country radio stations across the United States reportedly stopped playing the music of top-selling band the Dixie Chicks because singer Natalie Maines had told a British audience she was “ashamed” that Bush is from her home state of Texas. Some stations set up trash bins for listeners to deposit the group’s CDs.

Bush’s diplomatic gaffes have ensured that we’ll still have our hands full abroad once Saddam becomes old news. Bush ran for office declaring that the best foreign policy for the United States would be a “humble” foreign policy. In a last-minute change to his 2002 State of the Union address, the clique of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran went from “axis of hatred” to “axis of evil.” North Korea, according to speechwriter David Frum, was a late addition to the Iraq-Iran exacta. The wordsmithing made for something the boys in Lubbock could understand, but it didn’t play well in the Koreas. By the end of the year, North Korea had resumed its nuclear program and begun flaunting its arsenal of real weapons of mass destruction. And now even South Korea hates us.

On the eve of the bombs dropping, there’s no reason to believe America’s path from peace and prosperity to recession and aggression will dead-end in Iraq. For now, we’re at Code Orange. And not even Syracuse fans can be happy about that. —Dave McKenna