In The New Republic, John Judis asks us to banish the word “evil” from our minds in regards to foreign relations as a harmful and dangerous element. In his new book, “Accomplice to Evil,” Michael Ledeen disagrees.
In his mind, evil exists, and the failure to face it leads to disaster, or in the best outcome, to nerve-wracking and narrow escapes. Its hallmark is an indifference to suffering plus a desire to cause it, defined in our time by gulags and death camps, or flying planes into buildings, causing people to flee incineration in jumps from high windows.
Evil people exist in all countries and cultures, and in decent ones are called criminal and when caught are removed from society. Occasionally, however, they take over large countries and extend their malevolence to whole populations. Then, they become a problem the world must confront.
The reasons most people have problems with evil are twofold and internal: They are taught to believe that most human beings are decent and rational and wars of all kinds mean exertion and sacrifice — lives are disrupted, comforts curtailed, funds diverted from commerce to armaments, and 18-year-olds — who should be enjoying themselves in high school or college — end up dying on Omaha Beach.
As a result, recognition, much less reaction, is always deferred to the very last moment, and the Pearl Harbors and the Sept. 11ths come as a terrible shock.
Neville Chamberlain, a Birmingham businessman, thought the Nazis were people like Birmingham businessmen, and so could be bargained with. In a similar mode, Italian Jews took up collections to buy off the fascists. The Jews were all killed, and Chamberlain died before British cities were bombed into rubble and his country had fought off invasion by the proverbial skin of its teeth.
Smarter people than they also fell prey to illusion: Franklin Roosevelt, who early on saw the evil in Hitler, still thought he could deal with or get around Stalin; John Kennedy, who as a young man saw his father do all the wrong things about Hitler and had vowed to be different, was still stunned when he came face to face with Khrushchev’s brutality.
So deep and ingrained are feelings like these on the part of the governed and governors that it is extremely hard for elected leaders, “even those rare men … who see what is happening,” to take timely measures before disaster is imminent. In the rare cases when they do get it right, they are fought tooth and nail by their very own governments.
Winston Churchill was denounced as a lunatic. When President Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” he was roundly attacked, as was George W. Bush for the phrase “axis of evil.” All three, Ledeen tells us, were undermined by subordinates, who mocked them, and leaked contrary views.
The evil that once lived in Russia and Germany Ledeen sees now in Iran: the same fanaticism; the same indifference to the plight of its people; the same open, unashamed and unguarded assertions of what it intended to do. Nonetheless, since 1979, every president has convinced himself he could deal with the mullahs, and when he failed (and embarrassed himself), “the next president always thought it would be different for him.”
While they talk, and fail, the mullahs keep plotting, making deals they plan to break at the first opportunity. “As the Iranians see it, if we’re talking, they can continue to pursue their atomic bomb” in tranquility. “Talking is good for them,” Ledeen warns his countrymen. “It’s very unlikely to be good for us.”
Gulag survivor Natan Sharansky once wrote that for the oppressed, the problem is finding the strength to fight evil, while for those in free countries, the problem is finding the “moral clarity” (as he calls it) to see it exists.
Much of the world is free today because Churchill had such moral clarity. One of the first things Barack Obama did when he became president was to remove the bust of Churchill that had sat in his office and return it to England. As Ledeen would inform us, this was not a good sign.