At home, the Bush administration is trying to convince a dubious nation that it needs even more law-enforcement powers to wage an effective war against terrorism, and around the world it continues to wage an uphill battle to enlist the rest of the world in the fight. But those efforts are foundering, and four words sum up two big reasons: John Ashcroft and Saudi Arabia.
At home, the administration's top pitchman for expanding law-enforcement powers continues to sow deep doubts about his real motives. And abroad, the administration's blindness -- some call it blatant hypocrisy -- to Saudi offenses has provided a convenient excuse for European leaders who'd much rather make a franc from the terror-sponsoring states.
On the domestic scene, the administration wants Congress to grant sweeping new powers that critics charge would compound the civil liberties damage done by the first Patriot Act, hurriedly passed in the fearful days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Now, the administration wants legislation that would expand the right of law-enforcement authorities to detain suspected terrorists without judicial oversight, limit public access to information deemed sensitive and expand the number of capital crimes.
But it's proving a hard sell. Even some in Congress who publicly support most elements of the anti-terror war wonder if President Bush is going too far, seeking powers that have little to do with the fight against terror, a lot to do with conservative ideology.
And much of that suspicion centers on Ashcroft, the most visible administration advocate of expanded powers.
Ashcroft gives the impression he is on an almost religious crusade to give the federal government -- which he distrusts in almost every other realm -- much greater power not just to fight terror, but to go after and dish out the maximum penalty to criminals of all sorts, not just terrorists.
It's no accident that a part of the administration's new request is to expand the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty, long one of Ashcroft's personal priorities.
This is the same attorney general who interfered with local authorities to make the decision about where to try the Washington sniper suspects solely on the basis of where they would be likeliest to receive the death penalty and who has overseen several terror prosecutions that have all but fallen apart because of the government's zeal for secrecy.
Most Jewish leaders continue to support the idea that the nation needs to wage an aggressive, serious war against the global terror scourge, but some privately worry that Ashcroft could be using that fight to enact liberties-limiting laws that even conservatives have been reluctant to pass in the past.
The administration's call for some added law-enforcement powers may be justified, but Ashcroft's heavy ideological baggage undermines the effort.
Abroad, the U.S. effort to convince longtime allies that they needed to enlist in its global war on terror quickly conflicted with an array of self-interest concerns and with the administration's overarching focus on Iraq, a country whose terror threat seemed to most more potential than real.
But nothing has done more to undermine U.S. credibility as commanding general of the war on terror as the administration's bizarre fondness for the Saudi sheikhs.
The Saudis continue to fund terror groups that are working feverishly to undercut U.S. policy around the world; more than half of Hamas' $12 million to $14 million budget comes from Saudi donors, according to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), including a big chunk from government-controlled charities.
Then, of course, there's the billions that have reportedly gone to the Al Qaeda network.
But the Bush administration lamely insists the Saudis are being "helpful" in the anti-terror fight despite vast evidence to the contrary; it continues to protect its buddies in Riyadh even as they work to impede U.S. peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians and enrich groups that regard Sept. 11 as mere prologue.
The hypocrisy of that attitude isn't lost on a world that is only too willing to overlook terrorism if it's happening to someone else -- and if it's in their economic interest to do so.
The White House continues to insist that in this war, "you're either with us or with the terrorists," but it has granted a dangerous dispensation to its Saudi friends. When Bush family ties -- or petrointerests -- enter the picture, this administration is only too willing to blandly ignore certain sinners.
How is this different from the Europeans, the Russians and the Asians who benefit handsomely from economic relations with some top terror-sponsoring countries, and as a result obdurately refuse to pay attention to the consequences?
President Bush has depicted the terror war as a crusade of moral purity, but his administration corrupts that crusade when it makes yawning exceptions for its favored terror backers. The same holds true when the leaders of the domestic battle against terrorism seem to care more about old ideological battles than the fight against a new breed of terrorist bent on destroying us.