Until a few years ago, my family owned a Holiday Inn in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where we frequently hosted commercial and other visitors to the nearby Sikorsky helicopter test-flight centre. As good Americans with rooms to rent, we didn't discriminate among paying customers. So I could only wince when the hotel manager mentioned, just before the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war, that among our distinguished guests in the mid-1980s had been a group of Iraqi air force pilots.
This salient memory returned when I read that several of the suspects in the World Trade Center attack were educated at flight schools in the Sunshine State. If no one at Huffman Aviation or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University thought to check out their backgrounds before enrolling them, it's hardly surprising. For more than 50 years in America, a country still besotted and deluded by the Cold War, anybody with sufficient cash, brains and the proper anti-Communist credentials has been welcomed with open arms in the name of the greater good and of American-style virtue.
Our national guest list of ungrateful thugs and terrorists is long. We might as well begin with the government's suspected "Mr. Big," Osama bin Laden, the Saudi rich kid who joined the Islamic jihad against the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Whether paymaster or supplier of heavy construction equipment, Mr. bin Laden's cause and America's was the same for 10 years, until the Russians finally withdrew in 1989.
Mr. bin Laden's personal financial contribution to the holy war against godless communism, drawn from an inheritance valued at $80-million (U.S.) in 1968, is unknown. But thanks to journalist Mary Anne Weaver, we do know that the CIA gave the various Afghan resistance movements -- including direct training and logistical support -- more than $3-billion.
You'll forgive me if I don't believe the spy agency's denials that it worked with or schooled Mr. bin Laden: According to Ms. Weaver's New Yorker article last year, the Saudi construction heir enjoyed impeccable establishment connections during the Afghan rebellion, including close ties with Pakistan's military ruler, Zia ul-Haq, whose government transferred CIA-supplied weapons to the rebels.
Ironically, according to Ms. Weaver, it's the gulf war (our allegedly democratic jihad against the new Hitler, Saddam Hussein) that seems to have turned Mr. bin Laden once and for all against the U.S. and our allies, the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Mr. bin Laden's disillusionment with his former U.S. teammates was extreme, but perhaps his confusion is understandable. Mr. Hussein had developed into a U.S. "asset" thanks to his invasion of Islamically pure Iran in 1980. When the Iranians began to win, it was the U.S. that rescued the Iraqi dictator with logistical and intelligence support.
Here again, it was the mad competition of the Cold War that largely dictated U.S. policy. True, the Carter and Reagan administrations were angry about Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini's seizure of the U.S. embassy hostages, but America didn't definitively ally itself with Iraq until after the Soviets tilted toward Iran -- a reluctant client but grateful for any help against Iraq.
Mr. Hussein, too, was confused by American realpolitik,since his former friends in the Reagan and Bush administrations had turned violently against him after diligently aiding him in his war against Iran. When he grabbed Kuwait, he did it with the assurance, he thought, of U.S. neutrality.
Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Hussein are not the only former U.S. assets to betray us when politics and ambition changed their moods. Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, was welcomed by Washington as a suitable replacement for Omar Torrijos once Mr. Torrijos became too friendly with Fidel Castro. Eventually, General Noriega began to imagine that he really ran Panama, and spit in the face of the Bush administration; another good U.S.-trained anti-Communist had gone to seed and was duly crushed by the American military.
Further back, we find Ho Chi Minh, the liberator of Vietnam from French and Japanese rule, rebuffed by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations when he asked for support to free his country. An admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he was rewarded for his help against the Japanese in the Second World War with the back of the American hand; our Soviet-obsessed foreign policy elite was horrified by his Communist rhetoric. Ho Chi Minh remembered the slight and inflicted greater damage against this country than any former U.S. ally.
In the Balkans, we're witnessing another "blowback." U.S.-dominated NATO launched a bombing campaign against "the last Communist," Slobodan Milosevic, on behalf of the oppressed Muslims of Kosovo. Now our "friends" in the Kosovo Liberation Army have nearly destabilized Macedonia. Like Saddam Hussein in the fall of 1990, they're disinclined to take seriously the U.S. requests for restraint.
Why do we play this hypocritical game that comes back to burn us? Part of the explanation lies in the corrupted thinking of a generation of U.S. policy intellectuals.
Some of this was crystalized in Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous essay, Dictatorships and Double Standards,published in 1979, when Jimmy Carter had supposedly gone soft on communism and Third World radicalism, especially in Nicaragua and Iran. Ms. Kirkpatrick wrote approvingly of "autocracy" as compared with Marxism: "[Unlike Communists,] traditional autocrats . . . do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations."
Thus could America justify its overthrow of Iranian president Mohammed Mossadegh and its long support of the brutal Shah; thus could we support the organized terrorism of the anti-Sandinista contras. The fanatical mullahs of Iran know history better than we do, and have not forgotten our misdeeds. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan just doesn't believe that we mean what we say.
But another explanation for this self-defeating arrogance stems from the old Puritan belief in American "exceptionalism." This special place in the New World, defined by John Winthrop, was to be a "model of Christian charity" that would demonstrate Christ's spirit on Earth and lead its adherents to heaven. The Massachusetts Bay colony would be separate from the decadent Old World, yet be the exemplar for those left behind. But the "the City Upon The Hill" was not just a shining example to the world. It is also supposed to be an impregnable citadel of Christian morality, once protected by God and now by the atomic bomb. Thousands of innocent people died on Tuesday in part because of a naive belief in that moral impregnability.
From where I write, near the intersection of Houston Street and Broadway, I can see and smell the smoke still pouring from the disaster site. Our Puritan citadel isn't destroyed, but it's badly cracked. I hope our false belief in our own essential goodness has cracked as well.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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