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Choosing our friends, we're our own worst enemy

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I'm getting ready to move. So I'm going through my vast collection of old stuff -- papers, photographs, clippings -- and sneezing vigorously amid the dust of nostalgia and the misty watercolor memories of the way I were.

It's an uncomfortable business. Not only does the dust make me sneeze, it also dirties my hands so badly I have to wash them every half-hour or so. And sifting through old photographs is a bittersweet exercise that can elicit grimaces as often as grins.

So I think I understand how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must feel when he sees a vintage mid-'80s picture of himself as a special envoy for the Reagan administration. He is shaking the hand of a head of state the United States was courting at the time, an up-and-coming secular Middle East president by the name of Saddam Hussein.

Gosh, and I thought pictures of me from the mid-'80s were embarrassing!

I totally relate, of course. Who doesn't have an old photo in which you're gazing adoringly at someone who later turned out to be the most brutal example of evil incarnate the world has ever known?

(If you think I'm making this up -- or if you're just a big fan of irony -- go ahead and do a Google image search for "Saddam and Rumsfeld," or search the CNN or MSNBC Web sites. The image is buried in archives, so the URL is way too long and complicated for me to copy here.)

Under the "the enemy of my enemy may be a vicious psychopath, but he's my friend" doctrine, the Butcher of Baghdad was Our Buddy of Baghdad back when we were worried about Iran. And, as so many women have said of exes, he seemed like a different person then. Nice. Generous. He is also an honorary citizen of Detroit.

Back in 1979, when Saddam was elected, the leader of a Chaldean church in Detroit congratulated him. Though Iraq is mostly Muslim, there are Christians there called Chaldeans; in fact, deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Christian. Chaldeans are a Catholic group and they have some churches here in the United States.

Saddam sent the church $250,000. As the Rev. Jacob Yasso of Chaldean Sacred Heart in Detroit put it, "He's very kind to Christians."

So a year later, Yasso visited Baghdad and showed his gratitude to Saddam with a gift from Detroit's then-Mayor Coleman Young: the key to the city. In return, Saddam whipped another $200,000 on the church.

Boy, those were the days, huh?

So if he's still alive, Saddam might consider fleeing to the Motor City. Hope they've changed the lock.

But you have to let the past go. You have to look ahead and decide what you want. We've decided we won't stand for repressive regimes in which brutal dictators enslave, torture, imprison, execute, rape, gas and/or starve their people without due process. That's grounds for invasion. So who's next?

Rumsfeld has already put Iran and Syria on notice. Kim Jong Il has threatened to use nukes on us, so I can't imagine we'll stay out of North Korea much longer. And I'm confident we'll put our military where our moral indignation is against murderous dictatorships in Burma, Liberia and Zimbabwe. We can't play favorites now that we're in the liberation business!

I have to admit, though, I'm a little worried about some of our new friends.

Last month, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell had dinner with the leader of Cameroon to chat about an oil pipeline being built through that West African country. Cameroon is a member of our coalition, but it's probably better known for its spectacular corruption and poverty. In fact, Africa is so full of corrupt and repressive regimes -- not to mention oil -- that we may have to just liberate the whole darn continent from stem to stern before too much longer.

The pipeline is needed to get oil out of Chad, another garden spot of poverty and corruption. Everybody involved -- oil companies and the World Bank -- promises that, Scout's honor, the oil money is definitely, definitely going to help the poor of these countries. But Chad's president just spent millions the oil companies gave him on weapons to use on his opponents.

Of course, you could argue that Chad's current president is at least better than the last guy, who killed 40,000 people and tortured hundreds of thousands after coming to power in a coup supported by -- oops! Ronald Reagan.

Excuse me. I think I need to go wash my hands again.

Samantha Bennett can be reached at sbennett@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3572.

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