WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It has been widely reported that President George W. Bush doesn't particularly like making trips abroad. In the aftermath of his first state visit to Africa, it is painfully obvious why.
The masters of the mainstream media largely ignored his diplomatic overtures in five African countries and offered scant praise for his promise to help fight the AIDS pandemic sweeping the continent. By the time he returned to Washington, 16 words from his State of the Union address last January were being used by liberal Democrats to rally their troops. In Iraq, casualties among real American troops continue to mount -- but Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found.
Kim Jung Il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," chose to surprise the president on his return to Washington by announcing to the world that Pyongyang is building nuclear weapons. And from Monrovia, one of the African capitals President Bush wisely skipped, Charles Taylor, the former Boston gas station attendant, now resident dictator-in-charge, is lecturing on how many U.S. military personnel he wants dispatched to Liberia. Welcome home, Mr. President
As might be expected in the dog days of summer, the pundits and talking heads are having a ball pontificating on how each of these events have affected the president's plummeting approval ratings. Now, the prophets of gloom and doom are prognosticating that what President Bush decides to do about Liberia may well be some kind of turning point in the Bush presidency. Hogwash.
Whether the United States sends troops to Liberia or not is less important than what we do or fail to do about North Korea. It is less important than what we do in the next few months to bring order out of chaos in Iraq. And yet, there is one piece of common ground in all of these locales -- the lack of adequate intelligence. What we don't know about these situations is frightening.
How have the billions of dollars donated to fight AIDS in Africa been spent? We don't know. What we do know is that the disease continues to spread at horrific rates.
Did the Iraqis attempt to obtain "yellow cake" uranium from Niger -- or some other African country? We really don't know. Tony Blair, who arrived in Washington this week, continues to stand by his belief that Saddam's agents did indeed make the attempt.
Where are Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which were described in such detail before war began on March 20? Whatever happened to Saddam and his sons? We just don't know.
How many nuclear weapons do the North Koreans now possess and are they really reprocessing fuel rods to make them? We don't know.
And if Charles Taylor is the enemy of freedom in Monrovia, who are our friends in Liberia? Once again, we don't seem to know.
What we do know is that there is very little that the president can do about the first four issues that seem to be sticking in the craw of his critics. Either the money already spent to fight AIDS in Africa was well spent or we were ripped off -- an outcome that is now beyond anyone's control. The Iraqis either tried to obtain uranium in Africa or they didn't. Saddam either hid or destroyed his biological and chemical weapons before we got there, and the best we can hope to do is find the proof. The butcher of Baghdad and his two brutal boys are either dead or alive -- and we may never know. Regardless of what he claims, Kim Jung Il may or may not have nuclear weapons.
All of these events are "past tense." They have already happened, and the best we can hope to do now is to find out "who knew what and when did they know it" -- to paraphrase Howard Baker's famous Watergate-era statement.
But Liberia is different. Aside from the 32-man military survey team, we haven't committed significant U.S. resources, personnel or prestige on the outcome. Most of official Washington seems to have decided that for the good of Liberia's 3 million inhabitants, the now-indicted Charles Taylor has to go -- and once he does, we'll send in the Marines. But before they go, we ought to know who it is we want to succeed him -- and how.
Unfortunately, as in the previously cited events, our intelligence is appallingly thin. We're paying the price for decades of denigrating the CIA's clandestine service, for the hubris of thinking we could collect needed information from satellites and listening posts -- and years of counting on "liaison relationships" with other nation's intelligence services.
Given our lack of firsthand information, it cannot be assumed that those who would wrest power from Charles Taylor would necessarily be better. And given what happened the last time we tried booting out an African warlord -- Mohammed Farah Aideed in Somalia -- it would be wise to know a whole lot more about those who would become Liberia's new leaders before they move into Monrovia's presidential palace.
More than 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu postulated that victory in any military campaign required that you "know your enemy." Before dispatching thousands of Americans to Liberia, we also need to know our friends.