AUSTIN, Texas -- President George Bush's foreign policy is starting to look like a running gag on "Saturday Night Live." How inept can he get?

On Tuesday, Bush teed off on Castro of Cuba, saying he "ought to have free elections," "ought to have a free press" and "ought to free his political prisoners." All of which is dandy, except Bush was standing right next to one of our more questionable allies in the "war on terrorism," the prime minister of Malaysia.

Malaysia is also in serious need of free elections, a free press and freed political prisoners. Mahathir Mohamad is a far more brutal ruler than Castro ever dreamed of being. His party has been in power since 1957 (love those free elections). He's been in office since 1981 and the subject of denunciations by human-rights groups the entire time. His ruling faction is far ahead of Castro on bloodshed points. And we're offering Mohamad whatever he wants.

OK, we knew when Bush won the coin toss in 2000 that he was no genius on foreign affairs. Nobody asked him to find Malaysia on a map, but where are his briefers? Where are these great advisers who were going to make up for his lack of knowledge? This was supposed to be the "crack foreign policy team" with all the experience that was going to prevent the foreign-policy impaired president from making an ass of himself.

Looks like we need to start with the fundamentals with this team. Peace is better than war. We like peace. We try to promote peace. Peace is good. When Jimmy Carter is down in Cuba jawing with the Old Bearded One (and getting in some great licks for our side), the smart thing would be to seize the chance to make progress.

Even if you decide to pass on the opportunity -- because Karl Rove has explained to you that you need the Cuban-American vote to carry Florida -- it's really not smart to use the opportunity to make things worse. Announcing in the middle of Carter's visit that you're about to crack down on Castro yet again doesn't help anything. It isn't even necessary. Bush can keep the Cuban vote in Florida without that.

U.S. policy on Cuba was perfectly futile for decades and became utterly ludicrous after the Cold War ended. We're pals with Vladimir Putin, Bush trots over to China to exchange toasts with President Jiang Zemin, the Chinese veep Hu Jintao was just in D.C. last week, we've got undemocratic allies from Saudi Arabia to our paid-for warlords in Afghanistan, but we draw the line at Castro? I never understood that.

Of course, there was that unpleasant time the Soviets put missiles down there. Naturally, we freaked -- missiles 90 miles from our borders. When you think about it, having missiles aimed at you from 90 miles away is not much worse than having missiles aimed at you from Russia. What would it take, maybe a minute longer? We like peace.

We've been cracking down on Castro through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Clinton and now George the II. Fat lot of good that's done. Most reasonable people would conclude it could well be time for a change in policy.

This lulu Bush stuck in the State Department, Otto Reich, assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, is the goofball who totally screwed up during the Venezuelan coup. We haven't looked that bad since the time the CIA tried to make Castro's beard fall out. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says, "Reich now leads a veritable cabal of highly directed and radicalized Cuban-American administration officials intent on fomenting greater hostility between the two nations by concocting an atmosphere of near-hysteria."

One of the right-wingers at State, John Bolton, chose the eve of Carter's visit to claim Cuba has "at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort." So the right jumps all over Carter, who then tours the research facility in question and gets Cuban assurances that foreign germ warfare experts can come inspect the place.

Good news, huh? Not according to the right wing -- they're still in a stew. How dare Carter imply (SET ITAL) from foreign soil (END ITAL) that anything said by anybody with the U.S. government might be in error? Horrors. By now, both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have backtracked on Bolton's claim, diplomatically disclaiming it.

The right wing, in its nutzoid way, has been on Bush's case about his supposed lack of "moral clarity" in foreign policy. The fact is, it's a complicated world and most of us understand that. What I resent is the administration's pretense that its policies are never hypocritical and are born solely of virtue and idealism, never influenced by business deals, strategic considerations, the need for oil and other facts of life. It's one of those, "How dumb do they think we are?" deals.

The only president I can remember who conducted a foreign policy that was both consistent (mostly) and in line with America's finest ideals and values was Jimmy Carter. And he reaped the whirlwind in Iran of others' hypocrisies.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.