Doomed by the incoherence of a foreign policy defined largely by biblical notions of the struggle between good and evil, the Bush administration thrashes about in its hunt for the devil. Sadly, all that has produced are shopworn enemies that were once our surrogates in battles we would rather forget.
That is the case with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose war against Iran in the 1980s was decisively aided by a United States eager to protect pro-Western Arab oil sheikdoms from the contamination of Iran's virulently anti-American Islamic revolution. Saddam's use of chemical weapons, now cited with horror in the Bush administration's daily demonization of Saddam, occurred early in that war and was well known to U.S. officials, who at least implicitly condoned his war crimes.
The most recent evidence of this complicity was reported Sunday in the New York Times: "A covert American program during the Reagan administration provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons."
Iran, which also used chemical weapons, still is ruled by the same type of religious zealots who once seized the U.S. Embassy and kept Americans captive. But while President Bush early this year placed it in his "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq, Iran is now viewed more ambiguously because Afghan President Hamid Karzai is dependent on Tehran for his life.
The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance -- which was the United States' ally in fighting the Taliban and which now controls the Afghan military -- was long backed by Iran. A brutal group, it stands accused by the United Nations of having suffocated hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners whom the U.S. entrusted to Northern Alliance care.
Karzai, the token representative of the country's Pashtun majority and hand-selected by the United States, is no match for the Northern Alliance thugs and will be gone the day their Iranian sponsors give the word. Thus the warm greeting extended by Karzai to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on his visit to Kabul last week.
The Afghan nightmare, as the Russians learned, never ends. Our current allies will be tomorrow's enemies, as it has always been. Recall that the Taliban's members and its Arab supporters in al-Qaida are veterans of the mujahedin, who were once hailed by the Reagan administration as anti-Soviet "freedom fighters." And recall that the Taliban government was congratulated by U.S. officials only weeks before Sept. 11 for having dramatically eliminated Afghanistan's huge opium harvest, and was rewarded with increased U.S. economic aid through the United Nations.
In the area controlled by the Northern Alliance, however, the opium trade was still king. And, not surprisingly, with the Taliban gone, Afghanistan is again the major supplier to the world heroin market.
Conveniently, the drug war that obsessed this administration before Sept. 11 is now ignored. Our new enemy is not dope growers but Iraq, even though Bush has produced no convincing evidence that Baghdad has anything to do with the al-Qaida network.
The country that clearly does, of course, is that hotbed of hypocrisy, Saudi Arabia, homeland of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The sheikdom is now being sued for $1 trillion by families of the Sept. 11 victims. But President Bush would never move against the Saudis because American corporations, some led by close Bush family friends and associates, do too much business there.
So what other country can Bush invade to take our minds off the dismal economy that his much-ballyhooed tax cut failed to save and may have helped wreck? Not North Korea, the third member of Bush's evil axis, which is proving a major disappointment by giving strong signals of embracing Chinese-style capitalism while courting its rich neighbors.
How depressing for Bush administration militarists that the world is such a complex place. For a few months, it seemed that the invasion of Iraq was the ticket to ride into another four-year term, but then the most respected of GOP elders, Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, rose up to remind junior that just such hubris had destroyed his father's presidency.
Time to forgo the biblical allegories of good and evil and recognize that in the 21st century, smiting one's enemies is an elusive goal requiring patience and subtlety, as well as timely heroics. The enemy, whether it be global warming, addictive drugs, endemic poverty, religious fanaticism, terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, is best thought of as a dangerous disease succored by ignorance, pride and avarice -- sins of which the United States, too, is sometimes guilty. That is why we will continue to be tormented by monsters of our own creation.