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America is focusing on the wrong enemy

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One rarely considered tragedy of the Iraq war is how much it diverts attention and resources from issues more important to America's future.

We have been involved in Iraq longer than we were involved in World War II. Our leaders say American troops will be in Iraq at least as long as our military was in Vietnam. We will pay billions to service the Iraq war debt for years to come.

In the meantime, we do little about the crisis in education, the disaster of health care, and the tragedy of drug and alcohol addiction.

We are justly proud of America's ability to innovate and solve problems. We should focus problem-solving ability on education — right now. We can't wait until the war is over; if you're drowning, you don't wait for a more convenient time to start swimming. The nation cannot move forward until our education system regains world-leading status. So-called "school choice" is not an answer; it's a symptom. When public education works well, no one talks about choice.

And America's education decline would be even worse if it were not for dedicated teachers who continue to work diligently for little money in overcrowded classrooms and obsolete buildings. We can solve that problem. We must!

American higher education has also lost its edge. It has become restrictive and elitist. After World War II, we created the GI Bill. It brought millions of bright young people to colleges and universities. It forced those institutions to expand. That single program did more to make America successful than anything we have done before or since. We need politicians who focus on education to create programs similar to the GI Bill so we can make America successful again.

American ingenuity must also focus on the health-care disaster. We spend more on health care than any nation, and we end up with worse results. America's infant mortality rate is too high. Life expectancy is on the decline for the first time in a century. Some old folks and all rich folks receive great health care, but middle-class and low-income citizens are often left out — especially children. Much of our health-care money goes to those who have nothing to do with delivering care. That's ridiculous. We can fix it. We should insist that leaders focus time, attention and resources on improving the health-care system.

Drug and alcohol addiction disease kills more Americans every day than we lost on 9/11 and in the Iraq war, combined. It ruins more lives. It destroys more families. It costs more money — at least $150 billion every year. But we do little about it. Our so-called "war on drugs" is as idiotic as the meaningless war on terrorism. Like the war on terrorism, we focus on the wrong enemy. We treat addiction as a social problem or character flaw, not as a disease. We throw victims in jail and pay exorbitant amounts to keep them there. Instead of solving the problem, we add to the problem. It's like putting cancer patients in jail and telling them they'll have to serve time before they can seek treatment.

We know that treatment for addiction disease works, but most insurance companies won't cover it. Public programs are woefully underfunded; they treat fewer than one in four of those in need. The latest drug craze — methamphetamine — affects mostly young women with children, our daughters and grandchildren. Alcohol is the drug of greatest abuse, by far. But because alcohol is legal, we do little to help those with alcohol addiction until the disease is well advanced and difficult to control. We had the good sense to keep tobacco companies from killing millions of Americans by forcing the companies to restrict advertising, but we do nothing to keep brewers and distillers from glamorizing alcohol. Prohibition is not the answer, but because we knowingly create a health problem, we have a moral obligation to find resources to deal with that problem.

At the very least, politicians should be talking about these issues instead of fighting among themselves over Iraq. They should be raising awareness and concern so that government, business and the public can work to solve the problems. American problem-solving ingenuity can do the job if we reorder our priorities.

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words Inc. He received B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Utah and an honorary degree from Southern Utah University. His column appears monthly. E-mail: dongale@words3.com.