- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) — If a man can be judged by the enemies he keeps, then President George W. Bush has picked some beauties. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are as foul a pair as current humanity has to offer.

The Taliban and Baathist Iraq were two of the most dreadful regimes on the planet. North Korea with its gulag and famine may be even worse. Baathist Syria, which seems to be graduating into the ranks of the axis of evil after its sly support for Saddam Hussein, is defined to this day by the ruthless brutality with which it crushed the rebellion in the town of Hama just 20 years ago.

Bombarded into ruin by massed artillery, the rubble and some 20,000 civilians were then ground into flatness by bulldozers and the vast tomb sealed with cement.

These are desirable enemies, not simply because they rest on state terror and institutionalized cruelty but because they are breathtakingly incompetent. Regimes that rule with such viciousness tend to be very much better at maintaining domestic power than at exporting their power abroad. Secret policemen make poor generals and armies whose main job is to intimidate and mow down their own civilians are seldom good at fighting well-armed opponents.

America's two Presidents Bush could hardly have had a more cooperative enemy than Saddam Hussein. His use of chemical weapons against his own people and his invasion of neighboring Kuwait defined him as a regional menace. His military skills, unlike his rather skillful diplomacy, were pitiful. In the first Gulf War, he kept his armies dug into the sands of Kuwait and southern Iraq, where they could be devastated by nearby U.S. air power. In the second Gulf War, he watched his forces destroyed again from the air in the great killing fields south of Baghdad, between Karbala and Kut.

The problem now is that the Bush administration may be running out of such incompetent and cooperative adversaries. It is too soon to say how America's current diplomatic intimidation of Syria will unfold, or how North Korea might be talked and threatened and sanctioned into closing down its nuclear workshops and its ballistic missile assembly lines.

But neither Pyongyang nor Damascus looks likely to emulate Saddam Hussein's folly in giving the United States such plausible excuses for military action. They are not going to invade the neighbors. Syria, which has a seat on the Security Council, will make a point of keeping on the right side of the United Nations. North Korea will do whatever it must to maintain at least some Chinese protection; Pyongyang only agreed to the talks with China and the United States after China closed the oil pipeline across the Yalu river for "technical reasons."

The even tougher enemy for Bush will be Iran, a charter member of Bush's axis of evil, and now appreciably closer to becoming a nuclear power than it was when that phrase was coined in January, 2002.

Iran remains a considerable irritant, and perhaps even a threat in the Middle East. Its agents appear to be fomenting Shi'ite opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq. It backs terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas with arms, cash and diplomatic support. (Iran long denied direct support for Hamas, but a raid on the Hamas offices in Amman by Jordanian security police in October 1999 found documents which spelled out the relationship in great detail.)

And yet Iran has played it smart, and not just in the secret talks with the United States this spring on subtle ways to cooperate with Bush's war on Iraq. Despite the incipient state of civil war between the elected "moderate" government of President Mohammed Khatami and the hard-line Ayatollahs who run the military, the judiciary and the secret police, Iran is a tough and prickly challenge for the United States.

To outsiders, Iran's incipient civil war can look like a hard cop-soft cop routine. Try to condemn the Ayatollahs, and Khatami's silky diplomats are on the phone to their friends in London and Paris. Criticize their support for Hamas and Hezbollah and the entire Arab world rallies behind these "resistance" groups against Israel. Raise the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and suddenly the Ayatollahs cooperate with the Afghan war on the Taliban or offer to let the United States use their airspace to rescue pilots downed over Iraq.

The problem for the Bush administration, apparently invincible and dominant after its stunning victory in Iraq, is that there are no more such palpably wicked and incompetent enemies. In fact, the future of American power is likely to be shaped by the emergence of smart enemies like Iran. And behind Iran lurk the new soft enemies like France and Russia who will snipe and criticize and use their diplomatic strengths to block U.S. policies without ever giving the United States an excuse to do much but grumble.

(Walker's World — an in-depth look at the people and events shaping global geopolitics — is published every Sunday and Wednesday.)

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