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Published: Friday, 12/31/2004

Disaster-filled 2004 tested mankind's limits

THIS ONE can't be over fast enough. It's been chock full of bad news from beginning to bitter end. Go ahead, find something good to say about 2004. Take your time.

Even the old guy passing the baton to the bouncing New Year's baby looks more haggard than usual. It's been a rough haul. Let the kid brimming with optimism give it a whirl.

Can't do any worse than his predecessor, right? From man-made to nature-made disasters, the year ending at midnight has tested humanity's ability to hope like few others.

The fallout from the massive tsunami that overwhelmed coastal areas across south Asia is unfathomable to the world watching from a safe distance. But the anguish creasing the grieving faces of families forever separated by a rushing wall of water is something anyone with a heart can feel.

Before it finally retires into the history books of defined disasters, 2004 will have separated many a loved one from another permanently or, at least, for an anxiety-filled period. The year that can't end too soon was wracked with war from Kabul to Kashmir. But the armed conflict that made regular headlines month after bloody month was, of course, the one begun by the Bush Administration.

More than 1,300 American soldiers have died in Iraq and some 10,000 have been wounded since George W. decided to launch a full-scale military invasion of that country nearly two years ago. The President's triumphant "Mission Accomplished" photo op aboard an aircraft carrier a scant two months after directing the Iraqi invasion was woefully premature. And today, those in the know - even within the administration - concede the worst may be just ahead.

Washington has its heart set on nationwide elections in Iraq at the end of January even as the country lurches toward a civil war, the insurgency grows more sophisticated, Shiite candidates are being assassinated, Sunni Arabs are in open revolt over their diminished status, and armed Kurds stake out their independence. Deteriorating security throughout the land has convinced many outsiders working in Iraq to flee ASAP while a steady stream of American troops trudges into the yawning hell hole.

One would think the spiraling violence in Iraq, the spike in U.S. casualties, the absence of a cohesive plan to fix what is broken - we have complete confidence the Iraqis will eventually mend the fractured mess themselves - and the persistence of an open-ended military engagement without anything but the vaguest exit strategy, would motivate Americans to throw out the bums who stuck them with such a costly quagmire. But then again one would be overlooking the genius of Karl Rove to repackage black as white, arrogance as virtue, greed as a moral calling, and incompetence as steady leadership.

Besides superbly exploiting fear for fear's sake, the Bush-Cheney ticket managed to tilt a divided electorate into its column because its opposition was less inspiring than critical. Simply being against a self-anointed wartime president isn't enough. During war - especially - the country needs to be driven to change course and commanders in chief. John Kerry didn't deliver. By the time he decided to come on strong it was too late. Hapless Democrats went back to kicking themselves and speculating about equally hopeless causes - like Hillary in 2008.

For now 2004 ticks down with a last sigh of sorrow as the staggering scope of the devastation in Asia leaves the world numb. Bomb blasts rock Iraq as the Bush Administration forecasts a big Iraqi election turnout - would 12 percent qualify? - and ignores the distinct possibility of a Shiite theocracy akin to Iran's evolving in Iraq. But the American toll of invading Iraq is beginning to hit home with lives lost and resources tapped. And there are other fears making citizens of the last remaining superpower restless.

They worry about finding and keeping good-paying jobs, affording medical insurance, paying for prescription drugs with the $600 billion Medicare drug benefit that isn't, retiring with some Social Security, and living in relative freedom from another terrorist attack.

But there is a glimmer of hope in the human reservoir.

In the Middle East, for example, if Hamas and the Zionists don't derail things again, Israelis and Palestinians could find a post-Arafat opportunity to coexist without killing each other.

In the Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko survived a bizarre poisoning episode to win a presidential election fair and square and wrest the former Soviet satellite away from an imposter struggling to stay put.

And although not in the same league as the Ukrainian drama and other world events, losers everywhere were uplifted when Boston broke its decades old jinx by winning the World Series. There's hope for Indian fans yet. Which could be sorely tested like every other high expectation for the New Year, but that's an easy prediction to make.



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