When There’s No Good Guy

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Critics of President Bush’s policy toward Iraq often raise the same questions: Isn’t it ironic that we’re trying to get rid of Saddam Hussein when we once supported him? Doesn’t history show that you cannot impose democracy at the point of a bayonet? Isn’t it hypocritical for the United States to condemn Saddam as a dictator when it supports many unelected regimes?

These criticisms of American foreign policy are not justified, however, and provide no basis for opposing a U.S.-led military campaign to liberate Iraq. A brutal dictator such as Saddam has no inherent right to rule. His support for terrorism, his willingness to use chemical and biological weapons, and his attempt to acquire nuclear weapons all make him an imminent danger to world peace and security.

“But why should America get rid of this dictator while it continues to support dictators elsewhere in the world?” the critics of an Iraq invasion ask. For decades, these critics say, U.S. leaders have sung paeans to democracy and human rights while backing dictatorships such as Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the shah of Iran, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Even now, they point out, the United States is allied with such despots as General Pervez Musharaff in Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia.

First consider the longtime U.S. support for Somoza, Marcos, Pinochet, and the shah. In each case, the United States eventually turned against the dictatorial regime and actively aided in its ouster. In Chile and the Philippines, the results were favorable: Democratic governments that have so far endured replaced the Pinochet and Marcos regimes. But in Nicaragua and Iran, one form of tyranny gave way to another. Somoza was replaced by the Sandinistas, who suspended civil liberties and set up a Marxist-style dictatorship. In Iran, a harsh theocracy presided over by the Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the shah.

These outcomes highlight a crucial doctrine of foreign policy: the principle of the lesser evil. In the real world, as opposed to the philosophy seminar, the choice is often not between the good guy and the bad guy but between the bad guy and the really bad guy. In such a situation, a country is justified in allying with a bad guy to oppose a regime that is even more terrible. The classic example of this occurred in World War II. The United States allied with a very bad man, Josef Stalin, to defeat someone who then posed a greater threat—Adolf Hitler.

Although it’s impossible to say who would succeed Saddam, the United States can be confident that his replacement will be less barbarous and less dangerous. So the United States will avoid the problem that it had in Iran, where the shah’s flawed dictatorship was replaced by an even worse regime.

Once the principle of the lesser evil is taken into account, then U.S. alliances with dictators such as Marcos and Pinochet become defensible. These were measures taken to fight the Cold War. If one accepts what today is an almost universal consensus—that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”—then America was right to attach more importance to the fact that Marcos and Pinochet were reliably anti-Soviet than to the fact that they were autocratic thugs.

But, the critics respond, the Cold War is over. Why back such tyrannical regimes in the Middle East as the royal family in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan’s Musharaff? Again, applying the principle of the lesser evil, what is the alternative? Are there viable democratic forces in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to replace the existing despots? Or is the alternative to Musharaff the forces of radical fundamentalism, the Osama bin Laden folk? In that case, America’s support for Musharaff is fully warranted.

Critics of U.S. intervention abroad frequently miss the point that foreign policy is a practical enterprise. Those who condemn the United States for once backing bin Laden and Saddam are blind to the fact that situations change and, therefore, that policies must be devised to deal with a particular situation at a given time. It is foolish to hold the United States culpable for “inconsistently” changing its policy when the underlying situation that justified the original policy has also changed.

By this reasoning, America was justified during the 1980s in providing weapons to the mujahideen, even if this group included bin Laden, to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Similarly, there was nothing wrong with America’s supporting Saddam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the greatest threat in the region came from Iran. Obviously bin Laden and Hussein are much greater threats today, and we know things about them now that were not known at the time we supported them. This new situation justifies the Bush administration’s current policy of attempting to neutralize the threat posed by both men.

But, as the critics continually emphasize, does violence really solve problems? Actually, yes. Violence helped to end the regimes of Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however controversial their use, solved the big problem of an unyielding Japan. Violence proved equally effective against the Taliban. “You can’t impose democracy at the point of a bayonet” is another shibboleth. At the end of World War II, America imposed democracy in just that manner on Japan and Germany, and the result has proved resoundingly successful in both countries.

The problem with critics of U.S. force is that they are never willing to give bayonets a chance.