Talk to a geologist and they will call the Rocky Mountains the backbone of North America. In a way they are. From the Liard River in British Columbia to the Rio Grande in New Mexico, an endless chain and maze of ranges — the Sawtooths, the Bitterroots, the Tetons, the Bighorns, the Sangre de Cristo — form a spine that was a formidable barrier to settlers bound for the fertile valleys of California and the Oregon country.
But in a far more important way, the Rockies are not America's backbone. To find the true grit that made this nation and this continent the last bastion of freedom that it remains (despite President Barack Obama's best efforts to turn us into a fawning Euro-nanny state), you must head eastward about 500 miles.
Stretching from the Canadian prairie, through the Dakotas, across Nebraska and eastern Colorado, finally into Oklahoma and the endless skies of west Texas are hundreds of thousands of flat, square miles. Where the land is fertile, you see farms. Where it is not, you see ranching.
Here, far removed from the thin air of Taos, N.M., Telluride, Colo. and Jackson Hole, Wyo., men and women work hard from dawn to dusk (and often later) to wrest what wealth the land, the climate and wind — oh the wind out here!! — give them.
Today's generation, which can barely manage eight hours a day without heading home with a grudge, gawk as they whiz by on interstates they hope will take them to national parks in the summer or skiing in the winter. One wonders, as they look out from airplane windows at the circular green of irrigated fields 35,000 feet below, if they realize how fragile the chain is that brings food and fiber to our stores every day.
In this land of horses and cattle, there is a favorite expression for those who are careless and indecisive when it comes to handling livestock. We say they slam the barn door shut after the horse has left. It does no good to be firm and resolute when the cow has already escaped.
Much the same can be said in international affairs. Chuckles about the barn door ran rampant when news spread about North Korea's nuclear test. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that, as a sovereign state, North Korea has every right to develop nuclear weapons and test them. Last time I looked, China, Russia, the United States and a few other posturing members of the U.N. Security Council have done the same.)
Isn't it a bit too late? Don't former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and now John Kerry) have a lifetime of education at taxpayer expense about the wily ways of communist nations? What a return we've gotten on that investment!
Wasn't the time for action back in 1996, when it became clear that North Korea was refining uranium at Yongbyon? Did we really believe it was for peaceful purposes? To provide electricity? Look at the North on a Google map. One tiny shining point of light: for the politicians in the city of Pyongyang. The rest of the country? Dark. And cold.
Sanctions and outrage? Slam the barn door. That horse is long gone.
We could have told the Chinese in 1996 that if they were comfortable with a new nuclear state on their border, we would gladly make them comfortable with a few more: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea. If China's ally can develop a nuclear deterrent, than so can ours. Is it that difficult?
The cost to the West, even before these fiscally difficult times, is incalculable. At the same time we struggle to reduce defense expenditures as part of deficit reduction, we make our allies ever more dependent on American troops and armaments abroad. Europe becomes ever more dependent on petroleum and natural gas from the Middle East at the same time that region readies for a nuclear Iran, sure to touch off an arms race unmatched since the Cold War.
It is not too late with Iran, though I suspect we aren't even standing at the gate yet.
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