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This time, how about a real debate?

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Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush best articulated the opportunity born on that terrible day. He called on Americans to replace their "culture of selfishness" with a "culture of responsibility" that could unify and strengthen the country.

Bush's words echoed what great leaders have told us in times of trial. From Washington to Lincoln to FDR, presidents rallied Americans by inspiring the whole to make us greater than our parts.

But President Bush followed his inspirational rhetoric with a campaign to reward the wealthy and the powerful -- and to limit discussion of just about anything else. There was no attempt to figure out what "sacrifice" meant for ordinary citizens. And there was little debate over how Americans might change their lives to contribute to the fight against terrorism.

In fact, over the past year, the White House has wielded Bush's once-stratospheric poll ratings as a bludgeon for secrecy and selfishness, hammering home the point that any issue was a matter of national security -- or at least best left to a popular president.

The president's allies in Congress and the media have met each call for actual sacrifice with angry denunciations and willful ignorance. Ask the superrich to forgo yet another tax cut so they don't bankrupt the country during its war on terrorism, and talk radio host Neal Boortz will accuse you of waging "class warfare" against the nation's "producers." Ask that Detroit do its part for oil independence by making more fuel-efficient vehicles, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott whines that "environmental extremists" are trying to cram him into cars too small to fit him with his grandchildren.

Now, as a nation, we must participate in the most consequential debate since the attacks one year ago: How do we deal with Iraq? In many ways, the challenge facing us this September mirrors the challenges we faced last September. Now, like then, we have an opportunity to ask penetrating questions about the kind of America we want to become. Now, like then, we'll be fed easy answers draped in patriotic rhetoric.

The prospects for a truly meaningful discussion aren't good. They're tainted from the start by suspicions that unspoken agendas -- oil profiteering, political opportunism, a son's desire to finish what his father started -- outweigh questions about a very real foreign policy challenge.

But the possible hidden agendas don't bury those questions: How close is Saddam Hussein to developing nuclear weapons? Is it wise to go into Iraq without broad international support? Is the United States ready to take up a new role as the world's policeman?

Last year's failure to truly engage the public in a discussion about -- and ultimately a vision of -- the nation's future may bode ill for a meaningful debate this year about Iraq. At the same time, the shortcomings of the last year could offer preparation for this year. They should remind us that decisions of this kind are too important to be left for clever sound bites and politicians who pretend to know better than we.

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