Friday Sweetness & Light
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Cowboy Talk

Today I had a leopard Appaloosa mare named Sequila rip the top rail right off a fence, trying to keep me from putting a saddle on her.  Later, I rode her up into the hills on a perfect afternoon.

I mention this because of Dan Froomkin's Wasington Post piece titled "Where's the Cowboy Talk Now?"  He says he'd like to hear some "some of that famous cowboy talk" from Bush on North Korea.  Maybe he'd like to hear some from me.

I know of course what the man is trying to say.  He wants something akin to "surrender those nukes by high noon, or we'll come drag you out of that rolling saloon and fill you full of lead."  It's appropriate, he says:

What is the single greatest security threat facing our country today?

If you believe esteemed security analysts like Harvard University's Graham Allison , it is that a terrorist organization gets hold of a nuclear weapon and sets it off in an American city.

In the wake of North Korea's nuclear test, that threat has been dramatically heightened. Kim Jong Il is the only leader of a nuclear weapons state who might conceivably consider it in his interests to sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden.

So forget for a moment how we got here. Put aside partisan politics. Wouldn't this be a good moment for the American president to draw a very distinct line in the sand?

Good for you, Dan:  putting aside partisan politics is a wise idea at times like this.  Since you want to make an analogy to cowboys, though, let's make one.  You want to talk about how a nation should respond to the most dangerous threats.  Well, how should a cowboy respond to the dangers facing him?

Since we're talking about the most dangerous threats, let's put it this way:  what's the most dangerous thing a cowboy can do?  (Marry.)  Ok, besides that.

In spite of so-called "extreme sports" popping up all the time, one of the most dangerous sports of all is horseback riding.  My ride today was easy.  Sequila is a well-tempered, well-schooled mare.  That's not a joke -- she is.  Tearing off a fence rail is cake for a horse.  A horse is powerful enough to split your skull with a hoof, or crack your ribs just by laying her weight on you.  Tearing off that fence rail wasn't wrath.  That was just her being bratty.

An Appaloosa isn't that big by the standards of horses, either.  The average weight is only 800-1100 pounds.  Once you get that saddle on, you sit up in it and make sure the reins and stirrups never get into a position where they'll hang you up.  Even a lightweight like this can shatter your bones if she trips and falls.  She can break your spine.  Nothing personal -- she just fell.  You were in the way.  You put yourself there, remember?

The trails I was on today were well-established, but the heavy rains of several days had washed them out in places.  New-fallen leaves masked new holes and loose rocks.  Sequila stumbled a time or two, but she didn't fall.  She's a good horse.  Still, even a good horse can fall.

Oh, and horses are prey animals, with all that means for their evolved consciousness.  They can spook at everything.  Or nothing.  A spooked horse can stumble, or drive you into a tree, or worse.

Cowboys don't always ride well-schooled horses with gentle temperments.  Sometimes they have to break horses.  Horses newly broken to riding then have to be taught. 

So, let's say you're in the saddle.  You're coming down a rocky trail -- steep, and maybe washed out.  How do you sit the horse?

You lean back, to take some of your weight off her front legs, and you relax.  You let your weight sit deep on her hips.  In two minutes you could be starting the rest of a long life in a wheelchair, but you relax.

And when she stumbles?  You relax, sit deep, calm her.  If she spooks?  Relax, sit deep, pull the reins.  If she falls, you do your best to leap free -- but until then, relax and sit the horse deep.

Relaxing isn't just about attitude.  If you stiffen up, your center of balance shifts.  It's easy to get thrown.  It's easy to fall yourself.  You can throw the horse's balance off, which will make it more likely she'll fall. 

Or she'll sense your fear, and spook.

The attitude this breeds with practice has a direct parallel with warfighting and diplomacy alike.  Both deal with genuinely dangerous situations.  Likewise, in both cases, there are many times when the worst thing you can do is show fear.  Sometimes, the best thing in the world is to show that -- no matter what -- you're feeling relaxed. 

This easy manner in the face of immediate peril is at least as characteristic of the cowboy as the wilder rhetoric that you folks at the Washington Post seem to associate with the term.  Cowboys do both, of course.  You just have to know when it's the right time to use the one, or the other.

In the runup to Iraq, the harsher rhetoric was appropriate because key allies were being feckless.  We needed the High Noon rhetoric to make clear that we were going to do what we had to do regardless.  In that way, we maximized the chance that Saddam might cave.  Failing that, we maximized the understanding among Saddam's military that we were coming, and if they didn't want a part of the fight they'd best start surrendering.  They did -- some units before the war actually began.  For all that the rhetoric was condemned, in practice it saved lives in the early days of the war.  Whole units stood down.

On North Korea, things are different.  We may not have to fight at all.  We've got two key allies -- one formal and one practical -- with deep interests that won't let them walk away.  Japan, the formal ally, knows that the North Koreans hate them more even than Americans, and with better cause.  China, the practical ally on this point, knows it cannot deal with a collapsed North Korean state.

As a result, it's not our turn to draw the line.  That's for China and Japan.  All we have to do is hint strongly that we'll back Japan's play.  China can't afford North Korea to fall apart, so Japan's line becomes China's line -- whether China likes it or not.

It's a dangerous situation, all the same.  There are a lot of points of friction.  Many things could go wrong.  Any of them could produce terrible harm at any moment.

So relax.