Critical Focus -
Prologue – Tuesday, September 28th
Carly was in shock. A few family members huddled around her beside the grave, but considering the stature and popularity of the deceased, the number of people present was surprisingly small. Jim’s death had been sudden and unexpected. It was Carly’s personal tragedy, one she had no wish to share with acquaintances, reporters, well-wishers, or hangers-on. She’d have kept it secret if she could.
The Dean had issued a statement asking people to respect her privacy. No speeches, no memorials. To Carly’s surprise, everyone had honored the request. The Courier had even suppressed the obituary.
Now that the funeral was over, Carly wanted only to go home. The rural farmhouse and the animals were comforting, proof that life went on. But this, too, was part of life. Watching her sons say their silent goodbyes, she held herself rigid against the wave of anguish that swept over her. She turned away, fighting back her tears.
Congressman Paulsen, Jim’s closest friend, was talking to the Dean. He caught her eye, excused himself, and walked purposefully toward her, his arms outstretched. She lost herself in their momentary safety.
Chapter 1 - Monday, October 4th
Erwin Breunig fumed. He didn’t enjoy cooling his heels, and that it was the President who was making him wait improved his mood not at all. Who the hell did that bumpkin think he was? He could barely find his way from the residence to the helipad.
Breunig knew making him wait was part of an orchestrated dance, a message from the pompous Chief of Staff that the poll results were being laid at his feet. Keeping him in an anteroom for fifteen minutes was Carwell’s idea of subtlety. If things got worse, President Thornberry would distance himself in more significant ways. No matter that it was Breunig who had given the administration the backbone to fight its enemies. Without him…
“Excuse me, Mr. Attorney General. The President can see you now.”
Breunig looked up to see Thornberry’s personal aide. He forced a smile as he unfolded his tall, wraith-like frame from the upholstered armchair, nodding at the young man as pleasantly as he could. Why he surrounds himself with these fags is beyond me. If only I had a free hand, I’d clean this place up.
Jean glowed as she watched Scott and Katie run to catch their school bus.
“My, you look happy today,” she addressed the pretty, freckled face in the hall mirror that looked back at her from within its halo of slightly unkempt blonde curls. With an hour to herself, she considered possibilities, glumly ruling out luring Jamie back to bed. She sensed the darkness of his mood from two rooms away. Must be something on the morning news. One of these days she was going to move that damn TV out of the kitchen.
She found him staring at the screen, the coffee cup he held all but forgotten. His eyes blazed and tiny droplets of sweat dotted his scalp where the receding hairline left it exposed. God, it’s worse than I thought.
“What is it, Jamie?” Jean couldn’t keep the dismay from her voice.
“…beyond stupidity! How can they propose selling weapons to that butcher?” It was as if he’d toggled off a mute button in mid-sentence.
“M’Gombo and the defense industry buying off half the Congress. Our embarrassment of a President can’t see the greed and conspiracy in his own administration.” Though Jean’s opinion of the President was the same as her husband’s, she thought he was over-reacting.
“What about Wainwright last Sunday?” she said, carefully disengaging the half-full mug from his index finger, then moving behind him to rub his shoulders. “Didn’t he warn that selling weapons to M’Gombo would turn tribal disputes into a massacre?”
“State’s out of the loop, Jean. They keep Wainwright around for when they have to trot out someone people still respect. This has CIA written all over it, like the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan. We needed a foothold in Africa to fight terrorists, so we bought ourselves a warlord.” He seemed to run down, finally letting her fingers cut through his tension. “It’s all in the column I posted last night,” he added, with considerably less fervor.
The newscaster had changed subjects. “…a new record high for a barrel of crude oil. Gasoline prices are expected to rise proportionally. Sources at the Department of Energy said there was no reason for concern.” A new face appeared on the screen, this one assuring Americans that they needn’t run out and junk their SUVs just yet. Gasoline prices were cyclic, and they’d soon return to normal. That set Jamie off again.
“This is over the edge. A year ago, that guy was a petroleum industry lobbyist.”
Jean shook her head. She loved Jamie’s passion and his ideals, but the intensity of his anger chilled and worried her. Maybe the hate letters and death threats were getting to be too much for him.
She tried to shake off her concern. With a large backlog of cases waiting for her in the Public Defender’s office, she couldn’t head for work in a funk.
Secretary of Defense George McCarthy had lately been meeting Erwin Breunig for breakfast on Mondays and Thursdays. An outspoken bull of a man, McCarthy’s trademarks were clouds of cigar smoke, martinis, a booming voice, and a florid complexion. Political cartoonists liked to caricature him with a glass in his hand, but it was always a mistake to assume McCarthy was not in full control of his faculties.
By contrast, Breunig’s tee-totaling lifestyle and his lack of bulk might have made people underestimate him if not for his penetrating, steel-blue eyes and the spectral leer that was his characteristic expression. Few could face him without turning away. McCarthy shouted his displeasure, while Breunig was most dangerous when he spoke softly.
According to their critics, both men were wholly owned subsidiaries of big-money, large-vote-count constituencies: in McCarthy’s case, the energy and defense industries, and in Breunig’s, the ultra-right religious movement in unholy alliance with the NRA and certain law enforcement organizations. The agnostic head of the world’s strongest military force and the fervent defender of Christian values were unlikely allies, protecting truth, justice, and the American way from fundamentalist Islam, moral decay, and a weak, indecisive President.
The current focus of their combined wrath was Thomas Jefferson Muhammed, self-proclaimed descendant of his famous namesake via the slave concubine Sally Hemmings. Muhammed was a lightning-rod defender of ethnic minorities and an outspoken opponent of the “new American imperialism.” A favorite on cable interview programs, he’d delivered a scathing attack the previous evening on the administration’s support of the fledgling African nation of Darfur, the formerly contested Darfur province of Sudan.
“We need to neutralize that n…” Breunig stopped short of uttering the epithet that hung on his tongue, causing McCarthy to glare at him.
The third person at the table that morning, Intelligence Czar and former CIA Director Elizabeth Lowell, frowned disapprovingly. “You need to rein that shit in, Erwin.”
Lowell had come up through the foreign service, whence she was recruited as a CIA field agent. Her work organizing and directing an underground army in Kosovo had been credited with much of the success of the virtually casualty-free air campaign that brought down the Yugoslav dictator Milosevic. After that, her career had been on a fast track regardless of which party was in power. Humorless and tough, she knew how to fight in the clinches.
Breunig drew a calming breath. “I’d feel the same way if he were white, Lizzie. The more we let him say those things without refuting them, the bigger his following grows.”
“It’s Carwell,” snorted McCarthy. “He has Thornberry wrapped around his finger. ‘Stay above the fray, Mr. President.’ he mimicked in a supercilious tone. ‘Don’t stoop to their level.’ Goddamn political correctness,” the last a nearly unintelligible grumble.
“What are we going to do?” Breunig demanded, impatient with the pace of the conversation. “Too many people believe Muhammed’s crap.”
“Which crap is that, Erwin?” McCarthy sneered, irony dripping from every word. “The part about M’Gombo being recruited by the CIA?” The Sudanese rebel William M’Gombo had received an MA from the George Washington University school of International Economics at the expense of American taxpayers. “Or the part about Special Forces training and arming his army? Was it the claim that we financed his revolution and recognized his breakaway nation before anyone had a chance to scream over the violation of Sudan’s sovereignty that offended you?” He blew a perfect smoke ring toward Breunig.
Breunig waved ineffectually at the noxious cigar smoke, grimacing at McCarthy’s sarcasm. They all knew everything Muhammed said was true.
“You may not be attorneys, but surely you’re aware of the legal issues? Do you imagine we can go on ignoring other countries’ sovereignty with impunity? The world’s indifference over Iraq and Pakistan were aberrations. That base you two are planning in Darfur’s mountains is bound to draw fire, especially if Muhammed’s rants continue to influence the polls.”
McCarthy speared a sausage with his fork and pointed it at Breunig, while smirking at Lowell. “You have a suggestion, Erwin?”
“In fact, I do.” Breunig looked like he’d swallowed something nasty besides McCarthy’s mocking attitude. “But I’ll need help after the way Thornberry reamed me over my VFW speech.”
Lowell chuckled. “Jesus, Erwin. You demanded appeal-proof discretion to override the jurisdiction of civil authority any time you and George want to try people by military tribunal. You can’t say that kind of thing with cameras running.”
Breunig’s penetrating stare was as cold as his untouched breakfast. “That’s a cheap shot. You heard Thornberry approve the idea last week.”
“What he did was end the debate after you cut Wainwright down,” she retorted.
“You won the skirmish with Wainwright, then had to run your mouth in front of the media,” McCarthy added, glaring at him. “And you wonder why the polls keep killing you?”
“You’re missing the point, George.” Breunig was smug and unfazed. “We’re making policy based on public opinion polls. Why not just ask for a referendum on everything we do?”
“Jamie, look at this.” Becky Tobaczek was in their small conference room watching cable news. Uncommon Sense was Jamie’s creation and Becky was his chief editor, which meant she did everything Jamie didn’t trust anyone else to do. A granddaughter of the Prague Spring, she was a fiery activist who’d fought oppression all her life. Barely five feet tall, her athletic build and short, no-nonsense hairstyle bespoke her limitless energy and efficiency. At twenty-eight, she was nearly twenty years Jamie’s junior, but every bit as committed.
The TV showed the American ambassador to the UN defending the proposed arms sale to Darfur. Jamie was incredulous. “Everyone on the Security Council knows he’s lying.”
“No more than the frog who claimed France had a higher moral purpose in demanding that we reverse our recognition of M’Gombo’s government. Francouzi! I’d like to wrap my fingers around his hypocritical neck. His Belgian puppet’s too.” Jamie smiled at the way Becky sprinkled her speech with Czech aphorisms whenever she was angry.
“He’s contradicting everything Wainwright said last week. Does he think people are stupid?”
Ever practical, Becky turned off the TV. “We need to get something up on the website.”
President Marshall Thornberry watched the speech in the privacy of the Oval Office. Part of him reacted as Jamie had, but he knew what Jamie didn’t: the putative leader of the free world can’t always base decisions on personal values and beliefs.
He didn’t like M’Gombo and didn’t believe Darfur’s people were better off than they had been when their country was part of Sudan, but even the liberals acknowledged that while Europe and Asia argued over tariffs and markets, the forces of anarchy and dissolution were making headway. Socio-political entropy was winning out over order. Sadly, there would be neither peace nor prosperity for his grandchildren if that trend continued. A quick-reaction strike base within reach of the worst proponents of terror in Africa seemed to be his best option.
As governor of Indiana and a former agro-business executive, Thornberry had let his name be thrown into the ring by party pros. Voters wanted a leader they believed in. He didn’t have to be a great intellect or need a six-gun strapped to his waist to prove he was tough. He did have to seem honest and straightforward. Thornberry had been elected because he was likable. He didn’t mind people joking that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, or that being called polite and civil was, for many, code for wimpishness.
He knew presidents didn’t always match their public images. Lyndon Johnson hadn’t been a cold-blooded political shark; Gerald Ford hadn’t been a buffoon; Ronald Reagan had been nobody’s fool; and George Herbert Walker Bush hadn’t been so out of touch that he couldn’t buy a pair of socks. Thornberry accepted his public persona, knowing it gave him an advantage. It didn’t take much to rise above it, and whenever he did, the voters liked him even more.
During his first two years in office, Thornberry had had to depend on his advisors, taking it on faith that, personal idiosyncrasies aside, they had the country’s best interest at heart. Breunig and McCarthy had made a compelling case that a re-alignment of power was needed and maintaining the status quo, internationally, was a losing strategy. America needed to act, with or without its allies.
They reminded him that Europe’s track record in resolving major conflicts was abysmal and advised him to ignore his European critics. A changing world required new rules, and like it or not, the strong dictated, the weak followed − it had always been that way, and it would remain so in the future. Bold actions would forge a new concept of international law.
With no real alternative on the table, Thornberry had reluctantly continued America’s post-nine-eleven course of unilateral militarism.
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