Editor's Notes: Springsteen strikes a chord

Discredited over Iraq and sounding superficial on Iran, does the Bush administration know what it's doing on the Israeli-Palestinian track?

The top-selling CD in America for the past few weeks is by a 58-year-old New Jersey-born working class hero whose best years were thought to be three decades behind him. But Bruce Springsteen, who is also playing a nationwide sold-out tour, has returned to center stage. And in contrast to the grab-the-girlfriend and let's-get-out-of-here rebel music of his "Born to Run" heyday, the message today is mature, incendiary and reflects a battered, mistrustful American mindset with deeply problematic implications for Israel. The musical style of Magic's 12 tracks ranges from driving rock to swirling, violin-dominated ballads, but the lyrical thrust of the most powerful songs is single-minded. Springsteen, who campaigned energetically for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry last time around, has unleashed a guitar-fuelled diatribe against the Bush administration and its involvement in Iraq. The villain is never named, but he lurks in the shadows of song after song. "You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made. Somebody made a bet, somebody paid," runs a verse in the brooding, shiver-inducing "Devil's Arcade." "The cool desert morning, then nothing to save, just metal and plastic where your body caved." Two tracks earlier, Springsteen asks, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake... whose blood will spill, whose heart will break?" And the title track, the album's defining moment, a tale of trickery and deception, urges "Trust none of what you hear and less of what you see," and ends, bitterly, "There's bodies hanging in the trees. This is what will be. This is what will be." Springsteen has become something of an American institution - a lyrically more limited, but also more passionate and accessible, younger brother to Bob Dylan, and the musician who provided arguably the most heartfelt and rousing response to 9/11. But his remarkable return to popularity today underlines the widespread American identification with his tales of alienation, despair and anger at a perceived national loss of direction - or, more accurately, anger at the perceived national misdirection perpetrated by President Bush over Iraq. Though the administration and its dwindling band of supporters are still exercised in depicting the latest Iraq strategy as a relative success, gradually producing stability, I came home this week from a short trip to the US with the sense that debate on Iraq has been thoroughly superseded by a mainstream, bipartisan conclusion that involvement there was a mistake that has to be rectified as quickly as possible. If Democrats have long been arguing against the "misadventure," the change now is in the degree of Republican hostility to an administration blamed for discrediting the party and radically reducing its electibility. If the critics snipe at the pursuit of this "damned fool, dishonest war and a domestic policy rife with inequality," as one lifelong Democrat put it to me, then former supporters are barely gentler. Bush's term can't end too soon, runs the bipartisan chorus, with the loyalists now consigned to the dissenting margins. Concern is heightened by the growing challenge posed by Teheran. In contrast to Israel, there is no sense of real, imminent peril, but there is also no confidence in the president's ability to sufficiently widen the international sanctions pressure to the point where a regime thoroughly intent on its nuclear goal feels no alternative but to desist. There is fear that the president, in his last months, with "Dr. Strangelove" Cheney at his prompting side, may try to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, without having properly examined the fallout. And there is overwhelming mistrust of his motivations, his grasp, his decision making facility and even the truth of his stumbling depiction of the Islamist threat. When you stress the dangers that are posed by Iran - its apocalyptic vision; the possibility that it might not be deterred by the prospect of mutual assured destruction; the possibility of its supplying a nuclear device to a third party; the fact that it would not need to drop a bomb on Israel in order to mortally wound the Jewish state; and its blatant and successful effort to expand its control to the Palestinians (via Hamas), to Lebanon (via Hizbullah) and beyond - the response is frequently: Well, you told us that Iraq was the predominant threat to Middle East stability, and look where that got us. Press the point, and note that the evidence of Iran's nuclear drive is incontrovertible, and you'll often hear that last time, too, there was supposed to be no doubt, that Mr. Earnest himself, Colin Powell, sat at the UN and meticulously laid out the dimensions of Saddam's WMD apparatus. But as several strongly pro-Israel American Jewish activists and leaders told me in recent days, even if the full scope of the Iranian threat is acknowledged and internalized, there is precious little confidence across the nation that an administration characterized as inarticulate, superficial, and given to a hit-and-hope approach to complex foreign policy challenges, is remotely capable of meeting it. THE DANGER is that Americans' crisis of confidence in their leadership, and in its ability to subtly confront international dilemmas, may yield pressure for greater isolationism. It's a mad, bad world out there, so let's pull up the drawbridge. (Israelis, who were poised to reelect Ariel Sharon last year on a unilateral ticket that essentially aimed to leave the Palestinians to stew in their Hamas-dominated juices on the far side of the Gaza fence and the West Bank security barrier, could hardly blame Americans for pursuing a similar, and similarly misguided, thought process). Yet for the world's only superpower to bury its head in the sand, precisely as a ruthless and coercive rival announces superpower ambitions of its own, would be to abandon its historic support for the values it promotes worldwide, and thus to see its global allies weakened and an escalating challenge to the freedoms it maintains at home. If any lingering doubt about Iran's ambitions had remained, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN General Assembly last month should have laid it to rest. Iran is bent on remaking the post-World War II international hierarchy, and recognizes that a nuclear capability will starkly elevate its powers of persuasion. But while it guffawed heartily at the Iranian president's "no homosexuals in my country" foolishness, much of America seems to have turned a determinedly deaf-ear to Ahmadinejad's repent-or-be-damned warning. It wants to be liberated from Iraq, ideally Afghanistan too. It wants to keep the bombers out and the soldiers at home. Rigorous intellectual debate about how best to thwart Iran and its Islamist expansionism, and about how to protect the troubled outpost of democracy and freedom that is Israel, is in short supply. On the one side, there are shrill voices declaiming that World War III or IV is upon us and we must prepare to fight. Bush and Cheney are themselves ratcheting up the rhetoric, but not noticeably engaging in deeper assessments as to how win greater international support for a more effective and intensified economic and diplomatic struggle, or how to pursue a military option if all else fails. Would limited air strikes at Iran's well-protected nuclear facilities, at best, merely delay the inevitability of an Iranian bomb, while triggering a terrorist onslaught? And if wider intervention is necessary, how could a rerun of Iraq, with vast numbers of troops embroiled in protracted conflict, be avoided? The administration isn't saying. Is it even asking? On the other side of the argument is the faux scholarship of the likes of Messrs Walt and Mearsheimer, the drip-drip toxicity of Jimmy Carter, the "don't worry, Iran is essentially pragmatic" camp, and the seductive urgings of the Islamists and their apologists to abandon that unjustly implanted obstacle to tranquility that is the Jewish state. Between those poles sits a public that distrusts what little it can bring itself to hear. However short-sighted this attitude may be for American self-interest if it continues and festers, it is devastating for Israel, the intended first victim of a nuclear-emboldened Teheran. NOW LOOMS Annapolis, an unpopular and domestically discredited administration's improbable effort to produce a rabbit out of the Middle East hat it had left discarded for most of its two terms. And amid the failures on Iraq and the inability to present more than superficial rhetoric on Iran, the belated diplomatic push begs another question not only for the doubting American public, but also, most urgently, for those of us directly and immediately affected: Has the administration really thought this one through, either? Is Condoleezza Rice belatedly tending to her legacy? Is she, more creditably, moving to alter a status quo that is unfavorable to Israel and to seek common ground that could unify Israel, the Palestinians and others in the region who have good reason to fear a nuclear Iran? Such an effort is laudable, but the high-profile drama of a ballyhooed summit risks raising expectations which, if they go unfulfilled, can demonstrably lead to devastating consequences. Perhaps the United States has discovered new leverage to convince the Palestinian leadership to act against extremism with a determination it failed to muster even as Fatah lost first parliamentary power, and then full control of Gaza, to Hamas. Perhaps it is also quietly ensuring that the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Jordanians, the necessary supporting chorus for Palestinian compromise so disastrously neglected in the crazed run-up to Camp David 2000, are enlisted this time around. Perhaps, too, it has been pursuing a sustained diplomatic outreach to the likes of Russia and China, underlining how high the stakes are, ensuring their support, and alerting these two rising powers - so intent on charting foreign policies distinct from those of the United States - to the dangers of underestimating Iran's determination and tenacity, and thus fatally overplaying their hands. If so, the shroud of secrecy concealing such necessary preparatory efforts is being immaculately maintained. If not, one fears for a re-run of the post Camp David second intifada, only bloodier and on several fronts. Bruce Springsteen has touched a chord nationwide with his musical assault on purported administration dishonesty and incompetence in prosecuting the war in Iraq. The worry now is of catastrophic incompetence in leading the effort to thwart Iran and, where Israel and the Palestinians are concerned, in prosecuting the peace.