As the Middle East exploded this week, Yasser Arafat's ghost floated above the smoke of battle. The fearful conflagration involving Israel, Palestine and Lebanon has myriad roots. An international cataclysm is seldom neat and tidy.

Arafat's legacy was his missed opportunity to build a stable government. As a consequence, Palestine's politics have devolved into a destabilizing Hamas-controlled regime.

"Yasser Arafat spent the better part of his life fighting for freedom for his people, but when he had the opportunity to govern them as the first president of the Palestinian Authority he proved to be a dictator rather than a democrat," wrote Muqtedar Khan, nonresident fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Khan notes that President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak contributed to the lost opportunity of stabilizing Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Arafat wasted his appointment with history by passing up opportunities that have since vanished. That lesson is not unique to world politics. It has meaning at every level of public and civic political discourse.

The basic principle is simple. All of us live within an ever-changing system of relationships and unfolding opportunities. If a community, a business, a state or nation fails to seize it's moment, there is a calculable cost in that lost opportunity.The great American illusion is that technology and wealth allow us to live beyond the reach of history. Because the American war machine seems to have the power to create miracles like one sees in movie fantasies, we shirk the hard work of trying to understand the world's political ecology and the context of history.

In addition to this myopia, we are selling off our heritage. Too many powerful Americans are drunk on greed.

Responding to the jarring contrast of corporate venality and dead soldiers, writer Ben Stein has asked: "Is this America, where far too many of the rich endlessly loot their stockholders in the teeth, the America that our soldiers in Ramadi and Kirkuk and Anbar Province and Afghanistan are fighting for?"

Stein's question describes an obscene juxtaposition of soldiers and families that bear the ultimate burden of war and corporate pirates who ravage the nation in an era of unparalleled corporate corruption and greed.A nation may not long mortgage its assets or squander opportunities. On the grand scale, that was the lesson of World War I in England, where 908,371 war dead and 2 million wounded were mourned as "the flower of a generation." The extinction of that vital demographic speeded the process of the United Kingdom's national decline.

If you live in a small town, you see societal trends played out on a much smaller scale, but vividly. Principally, you may observe the lost opportunity in young people whose promise is curtailed too young. Some of these lives are stunted by drugs, adolescent pregnancy or lack of encouragement. Nationally, there is a downward trend of boys going on to college. So we have American citizens wasting their opportunity while immigrants are scorned for risking death to have the opportunity to live here.War represents the ultimate detour and lost opportunity. While war is profit for some corporations, it represents death, injury and destruction for many and a vestige that nations deal with for decades.

Like Arafat, President Bush is wasting opportunity, but in a different way. Bush's legacy will be a huge debt we must repay and a war of occupation that we'll spend years getting over. Placed next to President Eisenhower, Bush's lack of perspective is obvious. Said Eisenhower, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility and its stupidity."

- S.A.F.