A vacation on the salt marshes of Cape Cod creates the delusion that all's right with the world. The neat patterns of nature on Blackfish Creek, where every plant and creature has its proper role, provide a calming sense of global order (especially after a trip to Baghdad).
Cardinals whistle in the pines, the tall grasses disappear and return with the tides, an owl plaintively hoots each afternoon, and fiddler crabs send out bubbles from their sandy holes. However chaotic the planet (and the weather to the south), my little corner was endlessly reassuring.
But one can't hide forever. So - as I catch up on the news - here are the foreign stories that have swiftly returned me to the real world.
Story One: the top two senators on the Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin and Virginia Republican John Warner, say "time has run out" for Iraqi leaders to forge a political consensus in Baghdad. Both basically called for Iraqis to pick new leaders.
Story Two: Adm. Michael Mullen made an astonishingly blunt statement at Senate confirmation hearings to confirm him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said unless Iraqis get their political act together, "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference."
What you have here is bipartisan congressional, and military, concurrence that the surge strategy can't work unless the Iraqi political leadership can deliver - this in the run-up to the progress report by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a report unlikely to produce anything that contradicts the above.
However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the political system we built are incapable of delivering consensus or halting Iraq's civil war. Nor is that political system likely to replace Maliki.
There is only one way forward that might possibly build on any current U.S. military gains and push Iraq's sectarian factions toward reconciliation. The United States must engage Tehran - for reasons of Iran's own self-interest - in broad regional talks that set up a new framework for security in the Middle East. Under such a framework, Sunni Arab states and Shiite Iran would restrain their religious proxies inside Iraq, and push them toward accord.
So the most mind-blowing stories during my absence were those that made clear that the Bush administration is heading in the exact opposite direction - trying to organize Sunni Arab states into a bloc against Iran.
Straight from Absurdistan was the story that the White House is proposing a $20 billion arms deal for Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states, presumably meant to cement them into a Sunni Arab alliance against Tehran.
Iran's influence, however, can't be countered by heavy weapons. The Gulf States have no intention (nor does Iran) of waging a ground or air war in the Gulf. Tehran knows this.
The arms deal won't help isolate Iran, or stabilize Baghdad. But it does virtually rule out any chance that Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites will reach agreement inside Iraq.
Add to that the recent spate of stories with headlines like "Cheney urging strikes on Iran." The last-ditch push by Cheney staffers for another Gulf war goes on. That would spell greater disaster for Iraq, along with Israel, oil prices, and U.S. policy in the region.
I haven't even gotten to the stories about the global financial crunch, let alone the Islamist surge in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is reportedly hiding.
I'm already pining for Cape Code and the marshes. I guess it's obvious why.