The lesser of two evils

When we read a book, watch a movie, or enjoy an episode of one of our favorite dramas on television, we expect conflict.  Usually it will be a battle between good and evil, whether it is man against nature, philandering husband against faithful wife, a teenager’s dream that her parents don’t recognize, or cops against robbers.  Sometimes it will be crusading do-gooders fighting “the man.”  In all stories, we find villains raging against the virtuous.

But in real life, it isn’t always so black and white. Sometimes there are no good guys.  Instead, we realize that it wouldn’t bother us if both sides lost. 

I think the first time I fully grasped this sad possibility was back in the 1980s when Iraq and Iran went to war with one another.  Iran, at the time, was notorious for what it had done to Americans during its “Islamic Revolution.”  For four hundred forty-four days fifty-two Americans were held hostage.  Clearly, the Iranians were “bad guys.”

On the other hand, Iraq was run by Sadaam Hussein, a dictator and thug.  Clearly not a good guy, either.  Moreover, I was close friends with a recently arrived Iraqi.  He was a physicist who had worked in Iraq’s nuclear program before his arrest and expulsion by the Iraqi government.  His crime? He had led Bible studies and prayer meetings. Being a Christian in Iraq was not particularly healthy. 

So it was impossible to root for either participant in that war.  Both sides were awful.

Today, when I look at the so-called “Arab Spring” and witness the downfall of various dictators across the Middle East, ranging from Khadafy in Libya to Mubarak in Egypt, my initial thought is to feel joy at the downfall of brutal thugs.  But then, it quickly becomes obvious that those deposing the thugs are no better than the thugs themselves.  Mubarak was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist group who attempted to impose Islamic extremism on the Egyptian population: women were oppressed, the minority Christians were systematically persecuted, and anti-American and anti-Semitic attitudes remained dominant.  A year later, the Egyptian military—after the largest protests in world history—deposed the Muslim Brotherhood, establishing a “transition” government.  But Egypt remains gripped by dictatorship, oppression, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. The only change has been some shifting in who gets targeted for oppression and who does the targeting. No matter how often you rearrange the deck chairs, it is still the Titanic.

In Syria, there’s a rising opposition against another brutal dictatorship. Unfortunately, those battling the dictator are dominated by Al-Qaida—the same people who brought us Osama Bin-Ladin and 911.  And the same people who oppress women, hate Jews and Christians, and think stringing gay people from light poles is a fine idea.  Meanwhile ISIS has spread from the conflict and has become an even worse evil.

Sometimes it is necessary to choose the “lesser of two evils.” But in these disruptive times in the Middle East, it seems impossible to find much—if any—difference between the evils.  This brings to mind another cliché: “a pox on both their houses.”

The founding fathers of the United States, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, warned us against foreign entanglements.  Their words are sometimes used to argue for isolationism and against any and all involvement with foreign nations.  But I don’t quite think that was their point.  After all, Washington’s administration worked to make a treaty with Morocco in Africa (the first nation to recognize the independence of the United States) in an attempt to solve a problem with international piracy—while Thomas Jefferson waged economic war with Britain and consistently supported French interests against the English. Jefferson happily twisted the law so that the U.S. could make the Louisiana Purchase from a France run by Napoleon, effectively doubling the size of the United States.  The Revolutionary war itself would have failed had it not been for Ben Franklin’s success in bringing the French into our conflict with Great Britain, and Jefferson later served as an ambassador in France shoring up our relations with them while the American Constitution was being drafted.

Rather, Washington and Jefferson, when they warned of alliances, were reminding us that there is great danger in getting too involved in conflicts not our own, so make certain it’s really worth it. At the time of their warnings, the United States was not the overwhelmingly dominant military power on the planet that it is today.  We were weak and backward. Getting involved in the conflicts engulfing Europe in those days could have destroyed us. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the various European conflicts burning the continent were clashes between various shades of evil, not between men in white hats and black hats.  The French government—which had helped us in our Revolution—was corrupt and oppressive. The French people overthrew it, only to replace it with a dictatorship run by extremists who subsequently murdered tens of thousands with the guillotine.  What had replaced King Louis the XVI was not better—any more than what later replaced the head-chopping extremists—the self-proclaimed Emperor and dictator Napoleon—was better. 

The real world tends to just replace one scoundrel with another.  Most of the time it seems as if all we can do is just sadly shake our heads and walk away, while wishing people the best.  We are the friends of liberty everywhere, but guardians only of our own.  As badly as you feel when you hear your neighbors arguing, unless they set fire to the back yard or start shooting at you, it’s just not your problem.