Bush, Reagan, Moral Clarity, and the Politics of Evil

President Bush has outpaced former President Reagan when it comes to calling evil by its name. What remains to be seen is whether history will vindicate Bush as it has Reagan.

From President Bush’s farewell address to the nation last night (hat tip: K-Lo):

As we address these challenges — and others we cannot foresee tonight — America must maintain our moral clarity. I’ve often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense — and to advance the cause of peace.

I’m all in favor of tolerance, open-mindedness and humility. I try to remain alert to the possibility that other cultures, belief systems and ideologies may have something to teach me. But at some point, open-mindedness must give way to moral clarity.

I’ve not always thought this way. In 1983 I was one of the many liberals who sneered when President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” So simplistic, I thought, and dangerous. I loved America and certainly preferred it to the Soviet Union, but the Soviets were an important force in the world, and I thought it was naive and arrogant to speak out so strongly against them.

I didn’t learn about it until years later, but I would have been even more scornful if I knew about the philosophy of the Cold War that Reagan had voiced several years before he became president, in a conversation with his future National Security Advisor, Richard Allen:

“So,” he said, “about the Cold War: My view is that we win and they lose. What do you think of that?”

What a simpleton, I would have thought. But by the time I first heard of the conversation, America had won the Cold War — and Reagan, more than any other individual person, made it happen. He created the conditions for victory by bankrupting the Soviet Union with an escalation of the arms race — which I also derided at the time. While I joined others in rolling my eyes, he startled his staff and captured the world’s imagination with his clarion call: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And then, when he sensed the time was right and that Gorbachev was a different kind of Soviet, Reagan pushed past harsh criticism from his right and engineered a landmark nuclear arms treaty, signed at the White House in 1987, as shown in the photo above.

Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years after that, the Soviet Union fell.

In context, Reagan’s evil empire passage squarely attacks the sense of moral relativism that still guides so much criticism of the United States, both domestically and abroad:

I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

The Soviet Union was, in fact, an evil empire, but I and many others chose instead to focus on America’s shortcomings. The starkness of the contrast between the two great powers became clear to me only in retrospect, but Reagan saw it from the start, and never wavered in his opposition to evil.

Which brings us back to President Bush.

In his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush famously declared that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil.” Just over four months earlier, I and millions of others had watched evil unfold on live television, as the second plane plowed into the South Tower and the second fireball announced that this was no mere accident. So in the State of the Union address, my main quarrel with Bush’s formulation was not “evil,” but “axis,” evoking as it did the formal World War II partnership of Germany, Japan and Italy.

When a North Korean ship smuggling Scud missiles was intercepted in the Middle East later that year, I warmed somewhat to the term “axis,” but I still think it was problematic. More broadly, however, I’m a fan of Bush’s references to evil and evil-doers — so much so that I named the blog after someone else’s famous quote about evil.

Bush started talking about evil in the days after 9/11 and continued during the run-up to the Iraq War and beyond. He is faulted for insisting before the war that Saddam had — or more accurately, still had — stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Even though Bill Clinton was convinced, both as President in 1998 and through Bush’s overthrow of Saddam in 2003, that Saddam had WMD, Bush was labeled a “liar” when no such stockpiles were found. I suppose a case can be made that Bush was guilty of believing what he wanted to believe about WMD, but the idea that he lied about it has always been silly — why lie about a momentous matter when you know the lie must be discovered?

WMD or no, Bush’s liberation of Iraq rid the world of a truly evil regime. I still believe it was the right thing to do, and I’m not alone — support for the war has never dipped below a third of all Americans, although until recently you wouldn’t guess that from the tenor of media coverage. Iraq War supporters are a minority, but we are not a fringe group.

For better or worse, Bush’s legacy will always be inextricably tied to the war in Iraq. This means, as I’ve written before, there is a chance Bush will be remembered years from now as the man who planted the first stable democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. If some day Islamic fascism joins Soviet communism in the category of defeated ideologies, a President’s clarity about the United States as a bulwark against evil may again be a large part of the reason.

(Photo of Reagan and Gorbachev from the Reagan Library. Berlin Wall photo from Agence France-Presse. Graph from Pew Research.)