After attending the spectacular closing ceremony at the BeijingOlympics and feeling the vibrations from hundreds of Chinese drummerspulsating in my own chest, I was tempted to conclude two things: "Holymackerel, the energy coming out of this country is unrivaled." And,two: "We are so cooked. Start teaching your kids Mandarin.
"However, I've learned over the years not to over-interpret anytwo-week event. Olympics don't change history. They are mere snapshots— a country posing in its Sunday bests for all the world too see. But,as snapshots go, the one China presented through the Olympics wasenormously powerful — and it's one that Americans need to reflect uponthis election season.
China did not build the magnificent $43 billion infrastructure forthese games, or put on the unparalleled opening and closingceremonies, simply by the dumb luck of discovering oil. No, it was theculmination of seven years of national investment, planning,concentrated state power, national mobilization and hard work.
Seven years ... Seven years ... Oh, that's right. China was awardedthese Olympic Games on July 13, 2001 — just two months before 9/11.
As I sat in my seat at the Bird's Nest, watching thousands of Chinesedancers, drummers, singers and acrobats on stilts perform their magicat the closing ceremony, I couldn't help but reflect on how China andAmerica have spent the last seven years: China has been preparing forthe Olympics; we've been preparing for Al Qaeda. They've been buildingbetter stadiums, subways, airports, roads and parks. And we've beenbuilding better metal detectors, armored Humvees and pilotless drones.
The difference is starting to show. Just compare arriving at LaGuardia's dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through thecrumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai'ssleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitationtrain, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheelsand tracks, to get to town in a blink.
Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?
Yes, if you drive an hour out of Beijing, you meet the vast dirt-poorthird world of China. But here's what's new: The rich parts of China,the modern parts of Beijing or Shanghai or Dalian, are now more stateof the art than rich America. The buildings are architecturally moreinteresting, the wireless networks more sophisticated, the roads andtrains more efficient and nicer. And, I repeat, they did not get allthis by discovering oil. They got it by digging inside themselves.
I realize the differences: We were attacked on 9/11; they were not. Wehave real enemies; theirs are small and mostly domestic. We had torespond to 9/11 at least by eliminating the Al Qaeda base inAfghanistan and investing in tighter homeland security. They couldavoid foreign entanglements. Trying to build democracy in Iraq,though, which I supported, was a war of choice and is unlikely to everproduce anything equal to its huge price tag.
But the first rule of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging.When you see how much modern infrastructure has been built in Chinasince 2001, under the banner of the Olympics, and you see how muchinfrastructure has been postponed in America since 2001, under thebanner of the war on terrorism, it's clear that the next seven yearsneed to be devoted to nation-building in America.
We need to finish our business in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly aspossible, which is why it is a travesty that the Iraqi Parliament hasgone on vacation while 130,000 U.S. troops are standing guard. We canno longer afford to postpone our nation-building while Iraqis squabbleover whether to do theirs.
A lot of people are now advising Barack Obama to get dirty with JohnMcCain. Sure, fight fire with fire. That's necessary, but it is notsufficient.
Obama got this far because many voters projected onto him that hecould be the leader of an American renewal. They know we neednation-building at home now — not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Georgia, but in America. Obama cannot lose that theme.
He cannot let Republicans make this election about who is tough enoughto stand up to Russia or bin Laden. It has to be about who is strongenough, focused enough, creative enough and unifying enough to getAmericans to rebuild America. The next president can have all theforeign affairs experience in the world, but it will be useless,utterly useless, if we, as a country, are weak.
Obama is more right than he knows when he proclaims that this is "our"moment, this is "our" time. But it is our time to get back to work onthe only home we have, our time for nation-building in America. Inever want to tell my girls — and I'm sure Obama feels the same abouthis — that they have to go to China to see the future.