AUSTIN, Texas -- Excuse me: I don't want to be tacky or anything, but hasn't it occurred to anyone in Washington that sending Vice President Dick Cheney out to champion an invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is a "murderous dictator" is somewhere between bad taste and flaming hypocrisy?

When Dick Cheney was CEO of the oilfield supply firm Halliburton, the company did $23.8 million in business with Saddam Hussein, the evildoer "prepared to share his weapons of mass destruction with terrorists."

So if Saddam is "the world's worst leader," how come Cheney sold him the equipment to get his dilapidated oil fields up and running so he to could afford to build weapons of mass destruction?

In 1998, the United Nations passed a resolution allowing Iraq to buy spare parts for its oilfields, but other sanctions remained in place, and the United States has consistently pressured the U.N. to stop exports of medicine and other needed supplies on the grounds they could have "dual use." As the former Secretary of Defense under Bush the Elder, Cheney was in particularly vulnerable position on the hypocrisy of doing business with Iraq. (Although in 1991, after the Gulf War, Cheney told a group of oil industry executives he was emphatically against trying to topple Hussein.)

Using two subsidiaries, Dresser-Rand and Ingersoll-Dresser, Halliburton helped rebuild Saddam's war-damaged oil fields. The combined value of these contracts for parts and equipment was greater than that of any other American company doing business with Iraq -- companies including Schlumberger, Flowserve, Fisher-Rosemount, General Electric. They acted through foreign subsidiaries or associated companies in France, Belgium, Germany, India, Switzerland, Bahrain, Egypt and the Netherlands.

In several cases, it is clear the European companies did no more than loan their names to American firms for the purpose of dealing with Hussein. Iraq then became America's second-largest Middle Eastern oil supplier.

This story was initially reported by the Financial Times of London over two years ago and has since been more extensively reported in the European press. But as we have seen with the case of Harken Energy and many other stories, there is a difference between a story having been reported and having attention being paid to it (a distinction many journalists have trouble with). Thus the administration was able to dismiss the new information on shady dealings at Harken as "old news" because not much attention was ever paid when the old news was new.

When Cheney left Halliburton, he received a $34 million severance package despite the fact that the single biggest deal of his five-year career there, the acquisition of Dresser Industries, turned out to be a huge blunder since the company came saddled with asbestos liability. (On the campaign trail, Cheney often claimed he had been "out in the private sector creating jobs." The first thing he did after the Dresser merger was lay off 10,000 people.)

Halliburton, America's No. 1 oil-services company, is the nation's fifth-largest military contractor and the biggest non-union employer in the United States. It employs more than 100,000 workers worldwide and does over $15 billion a year. Halliburton under Cheney dealt with several brutal dictatorships, including the despicable government of Burma (Myanmar). The company also played questionable roles in Algeria, Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, Haiti, Somalia and Indonesia.

Halliburton also had dealings with Iran and Libya, both on the State Department's list of terrorist states. Halliburton's subsidiary Brown & Root, the old Texas construction firm that does much business with the U.S. military, was fined $3.8 million for re-exporting goods to Libya in violation of U.S. sanctions.

If you want to know why the Democrats didn't jump all over this story and make a big deal out it, it's because -- as usual -- Democrats are involved in similar dealings. Former CIA director John Deutsch is on the board of Schlumberger, the second largest oil services firm after Halliburton, which is also doing business with Iraq through subsidiaries.

Americans have long been aware that corporate money has consistently corrupted domestic policy in favor of corporate interests, and that both parties are in thrall to huge corporate campaign donors. We are less accustomed to connecting the dots when it comes to foreign policy. But there is no more evidence that corporations pay attention to anything other than profits in their foreign dealings than they do in their domestic deals.

Enron, as usual, provides some textbook examples of just how indifferent to human rights American companies can be. Halliburton's dealings in Nigeria, in partnership with Shell and Chevron, provide another such example, including gross violations of human rights and environmental abuses.

No one is ever going to argue that Saddam Hussein is a good guy, but Dick Cheney is not the right man to make the case against him. I have never understood why the Washington press corps cannot remember anything for longer than 10 minutes, but hearing Cheney denounce Saddam is truly "Give us a break" time.

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.