U.S. image sinks in a swamp full of Blackwater

WASHINGTON - "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster," Nietzsche said. "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

We're gazing into the abyss all right, and Blackwater is gazing back.

Besides having an army for hire, brave kids who are paid to fight so that most Americans are not personally touched by war, we have the real mercenaries. And they're a spooky cadre, careening outside the laws of Iraq, the United States and the military.

President Bush continues to preach that we must defeat the "dark ideology" of extremists with "a more hopeful vision."

But the compromises W. makes to slog on in Iraq, be it with warlords, dictators or out-of-control contractors, are spreading a dark stain on America's image.

"Blackwater appears to have fostered a culture of shoot first and sometimes kill, and then ask the questions," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, Tuesday at a House hearing.

The New York Times reports Wednesday that Blackwater's explanation of an incident in Baghdad on Sept. 16 that left 17 dead and 24 wounded is sketchy.

It seems as though a bullet struck a man driving his mother to pick up his father, a pathologist, at the hospital. The dead man's weight, The Times reports, "probably remained on the accelerator and propelled the car forward" toward a Blackwater convoy.

Blackwater guards then unleashed a spray of gunfire and explosives, even though witnesses did not see anyone shooting at the U.S. convoy and even though Iraqis were turning their cars around and escaping the scene.

The Blackwater desperados are a sinister symbol of how little progress we've made in Iraq, that VIPs - or "packages," as the contractors call them - can't make a move in the country without the high-priced hired guns of the State Department.

Americans have been anti-mercenary since the British sent 30,000 German Hessians after George Washington in the Revolutionary War.

But W. outsourced his presidency to Cheney and Rummy, and Cheney and Rummy went to war on the cheap and outsourced large chunks of the Iraq occupation to Halliburton and Blackwater. The U.S. taxpayer got gouged, and so did the U.S. reputation.

The mercenaries inflame Iraqis even as Gen. David Petraeus tries to win their trust.

Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, summoned the 38-year-old crew-cut chairman of Blackwater, Erik Prince, to defend his private security company Tuesday.

Once there was the military-industrial complex. Now we have the mercenary-evangelical complex.

Prince, a former intern to the first President Bush and a former Navy SEAL, is from a well-to-do and well-connected Republican family from Michigan.

He and his father both have close ties to conservative Christian groups. His sister was a Pioneer for W., raising $100,000 in 2004, and Erik Prince has given more than $225,000 to Republicans, including his former boss.

Blackwater, in turn, has been the beneficiary of $1 billion in federal contracts, including a no-bid contract with the State Department worth hundreds of millions.

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at The New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.