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Speak No Evil

The problem with Obama's much-lauded Nobel speech.

The lines most cited in Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech were those about evil: “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

These lines won approbation from both liberals and conservatives. Former Clinton aide Bill Galston praised them as an example of Obama’s “moral realism.” According to neoconservative Bob Kagan, Obama didn’t “shy away from the Manichaean distinctions that drive self-described realists (and Europeans) crazy.” Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said the lines marked the speech as “very American.” “He didn’t speak as kind of the citizen of the world, as sometimes he has in the past,” Gerson added approvingly.

I am not a self-described realist, and I am a Chicagoan by birth, yet I don’t care for these lines. While I don’t object to the idea of just war, and have supported the various wars that Obama cited in his speech, and wouldn’t balk at calling Al Qaeda or Hitler evil, I think Obama ventured onto dangerous terrain by invoking the existence of evil as a justification for war. That kind of argument suggests neither moral realism nor prudent idealism, but the crusade-like, messianic foreign policy--pitting good against evil--that got the country into so much trouble during the last administration.

At the risk of appearing pedantic, I want to say something about the use of the term “evil,” which has a different linguistic status than terms like “bad,” “naughty,” “mean,” or “nasty.” Unlike these other terms, the term “evil” has a religious connotation suggesting that people are possessed by it. Moreover, when one says there is “evil in the world,” one seems to be referring to a something and not merely a passing quality or affliction--such as, say, unhappiness. As a result, saying there is evil carries a certain weight of argument.

At the same time, there is no fixed meaning for the term “evil.” Like the term “beautiful”--which expresses high praise for how someone looks but doesn’t imply whether they are a blond or a brunette--the term “evil” expresses condemnation of an individual or institution without implying clearly what they have done wrong. Within a community, or nation, there can be agreement at the very extremes about the term’s use--for instance, most Americans believe Hitler was evil--but little agreement on most examples. For instance, a considerable number of liberals, but very few, if any, conservatives, would describe Dick Cheney as evil. Some wacky conservatives think Obama himself is “the epitome of evil in every sense of the word.”

The proper question to ask about this term is not what it means--as if there were a distinct substance that it referred to--but the kind of activities or individuals that it is used to condemn. Instead of a defining list, there is a set of rotating attributes. These would include, for instance, the willful disregard of other people’s lives and treating a race, ethnic group, or sex as less than human. Evil is also often associated with the notion that a particular individual or regime is unredeemable--not subject to change by persuasion or conventional inducement. But none of these attributes is defining. One can always find counter-examples. For instance, some people might believe that the financier Bernie Madoff is evil without thinking that he is beyond rehabilitation. Or one can think Stalin was evil without thinking that he wasn’t amenable to negotiation.

In conversation, calling someone evil usually indicates that an argument has gotten out of hand. It’s the verbal equivalent of hitting someone. In foreign policy discussions, it often indicates an attempt to cut short rather than to advance an argument. Like a comparison to Hitler, the attribution of evil to a leader or regime doesn’t add a new detail to a discussion, but usually stops it in its place. Implicitly, a speaker is saying, “He’s evil--what more needs to be said?” In this sense, the term possesses weight, but not substance.

Outside the context of a particular argument, calling a nation or regime evil doesn’t entail any particular action in relationship to it. It’s not like saying someone has pneumonia or swine flu. A variety of people in the United States and Europe could agree that a regime (say, that of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov) is evil without agreeing on any action that should be take in relation to it. But the term’s iconic status means is that if someone does try to justify a course of action by invoking evil, it becomes more difficult than usual to reject that course of action. It appears to justify, say, military intervention, without the person advocating intervention having to go into the details of why, for instance, the U.S. needs to overthrow Saddam or defeat the Taliban.

In Oslo, Obama clearly wanted to justify his escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But instead of responding directly to doubts about his policy--whether it is possible to defeat the Taliban with the forces at hand; whether, even if it is possible, doing so would actually rid the world of Al Qaeda--he imputed to his critics a “deep ambivalence about military action,” which he sought to address by asserting the presence of evil. In fact, Europe’s governments sent troops to Afghanistan and have pledged more. Europe’s citizenry is skeptical about doing so--some on pacifist grounds, but most on the same grounds that American citizens are skeptical. They believe Al Qaeda is evil, but they don’t believe that sending 40,000 more troops to Kabul will get rid of the group.

Obama went further by identifying the threat of Al Qaeda with that of Hitler--a wild inflation--and asserting that “a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.” Yes, it’s true enough that Gandhi could not have stopped Hitler, but a concerted international policing and intelligence effort, along with the use of drones, has already crippled Al Qaeda and might continue to do so without a massive escalation in Afghanistan. It might not, too, but that’s a point that needs to be argued. By ignoring the obvious details of argument, and by imputing their doubts entirely to pacifism, Obama was insulting the moral intelligence of his critics in Europe and the United States.

Obama was also establishing a linguistic precedent that he might later regret. Branding a leader or a movement evil--and equating them to Hitler or the Nazis--is not only a way to put critics on the defensive; it can also embolden erstwhile supporters to demand action that goes far beyond what a president contemplates. George H.W. Bush discovered this during the first Gulf War. In arguing for ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Bush described Saddam Hussein as “a man of brutal means and, in my view, unmitigated evil” and compared him to Hitler. Bush, of course, was only interested in driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but by invoking evil and Hitler, he lent weight to his critics on the right who charged that, after taking Kuwait, American forces should have advanced on Baghdad. Certainly, if Saddam were as dangerous as Hitler, why shouldn’t American forces have sought to depose him?

Obama may have set the same kind of trap for himself at Oslo by pairing Al Qaeda with Hitler. If bin Laden is indeed the new Hitler, why stop at 30,000 or 40,000 troops and why set any deadline at all? Why not send 100,000 or 150,000 more troops and pledge to stop at nothing until the Taliban and Al Qaeda are completely defeated? Several of Obama’s critics, including Andrew Bacevich, have already pointed to this contradiction looming in his rhetoric. If Obama discovers after a year that his military efforts in Afghanistan are proving futile--or far more expensive in money and lives than the country is willing to countenance--and decides to begin withdrawing forces, he will have his words about evil and Hitler thrown back in his face. What was intended as a moderate and cautious policy will be sacrificed on the altar of his extravagant rhetoric.

In analyzing Obama’s speech in Oslo, many commentators have pointed to a conversation about political philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that Obama had two years ago with New York Times columnist David Brooks. Obama told Brooks that Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.” Asked by Brooks what he took away from his reading of Niebuhr, Obama included “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.” That statement suggests that Obama’s statement about evil in his speech was drawn from, or at least heavily influenced by, Niebuhr. But there is an important difference between what Obama said in Oslo and what Niebuhr wrote about evil. And this difference speaks again to the peril of a president relying on the specter of evil to justify his foreign policy.

I haven’t read all of Niebuhr, but I think I’ve read the books that bear directly on the U.S. and the world, particularly The Irony of American History. That’s the book in which Niebuhr talks about good and evil and foreign policy. But he talks about it in a peculiar way. Niebuhr was a Protestant theologian who incorporated the idea of original sin into his political teachings. When he writes of “the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound,” he is hearkening back to Adam’s fall. What he means by “evil” in this sense is not necessarily a will to kill and enslave, but “excessive self-interest” and a “lust for power” that leads to the tolerance of injustice.

The existence of these kind of homelier passions can explain the Peloponnesian Wars and the War of 1812, as well as World War II and September 11, but they don’t necessarily justify going to war against an adversary. Niebuhr warned explicitly in The Irony of American History of an American “Messianic dream” that dates from the Puritans and that has sometimes led the country into envisaging its foreign policy as a crusade of good against evil. (I wrote about this kind of foreign policy in The Folly of Empire and my colleague Peter Scoblic did likewise in U.S. vs. Them.) Niebuhr concluded that “our success in world politics necessitates a disavowal of the pretentious elements in our original dream.”

Niebuhr, while a firm supporter of Harry Truman’s strategy of containing communism, opposed American intervention in Vietnam. It is safe to say, I think, that he would have rejected the messianic course that foreign policy took under George W. Bush. And he might also have warned his current protégé against invoking the “pretentious elements” in American foreign policy as justification for a difficult and complex strategy in Afghanistan. Yes, there is evil in the world, but it’s a slippery term, and a president cannot rely on its existence to validate his foreign policy.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

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