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.)

12 thoughts on “Bush, Reagan, Moral Clarity, and the Politics of Evil

  1. Kirk,I think this was an incredibly insightful post. I am a conservative, have lived Texas my whole life, and watched Bush go from being the owner of the Texas Rangers (my local club) to governor of the state of Texas and right into the White House. I have never been a big fan of his, mainly because of his “holier than thou” demeanor (in my opinion), and I think he damaged this country in ways that may not get rectified for many years.

    However, I am absolutely certain that time will be kinder to this man than his eight years in office have been to him. There are many things about Iraq, and especially about some of our “allies” working with Hussein, that will one day come to light. I am also certain that many WMD, in the form of chemical weapons (not A-Bombs and Nuclear bombs to many peoples’ dismay) were carted out of Iraq and into Syria in the days prior to the beginning of the war. Those will inevitably be uncovered (maybe literally, as in under the sand) and Bush should get at least some credit for not having lied to the world about Hussein.

    I get so frustrated with people who refuse to learn about how their government really works. No one man, even the President, can (on his own) fix, or create, all of a country’s ills. It takes Congress to help achieve that, along with many other variables and entities. The fact that Bush, alone, is being blamed for everything that is currently wrong with this country while people like Frank, Pelosi and Reid get a free pass on their ineptitude is insane. As I said, I am no fan of Bush, but the unwillingness of the American people to hold ALL those responsible (including Republicans) for the problems in this country is dangerous. We have, basically, rewarded and approved of the despicable behavior of many of our elected officials by not holding them accountable for their wrong-doings. It can only get worse because of this. What will stop these people from carrying on in the same reckless manner they have been since they took office? We have already excused their incompetence, which is the same as giving it our stamp of approval.

    Bush will, rightfully, be scorned for many years in this country, and around the world, but the real test for his detractors will be whether or not they can ever see past their blind hatred to give the man credit for the things he did do right (like keeping this country from enduring another catastrophy for over seven years and running)?

    Time will tell but, as you stated, look at what people said about Reagan all those years until he proved he was right all along!

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Matt. The only way that Bush DOESN’T look better in 20 years or so is if Iraq goes completely to hell and takes the Middle East with it. I don’t see that happening — I don’t think you can unring the democracy bell in Iraq.

  3. I think Thomas Sowell’s words can be added to this discussion:

    “”If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win.”

    I believe President Bush is a decent man and is good people, we like to say in the South. The treatment he has received from the mainstream media and liberals is hard to understand.

    Not in any way do I believe Bush to be perfect. I wish had done a better job in regards to government spending, for example. I also wish the war in Iraq had been better executed.

    However, as you say, the Iraq war will be the enduring legacy of President Bush.

    Also, since you wrote that you were once a liberal, I would like it if you could one day do a post about why you decided to come over from the dark side. :) My father-in-law is liberal, and I’ve always wanted to know what makes people like him tick. However, he never wishes to talk about politics.

    A few years ago, I heard someone say that conservatives deal in reality, while liberals deal in how they would like for things to be.

    But because we live in a fallen world, there will never be utopia on earth.

  4. Paul, I’m still a liberal on social issues – I’m pro-choice and I’m to the left of Obama on same-sex marriage.

    I’ll do the “why I turned right” post someday. The short version is, I was more or less a socialist in college, then got a job at a small daily newspaper and moved to the right a bit… then got a much better-paying job on Wall Street. After 15 years on Wall Street, I’d somehow become more conservative. :)

    I still voted for Democrats for president — I voted for Clinton twice (three times if you count 2000). I’m a 9/11 Republican, voted GOP in 2004 and 2008. I could still vote Democratic some day, if they ever have a standard-bearer who is serious on security issues.

  5. I agree that a moral element is absolutely necessary for politics even those who argue against it argue for a moral standpoint albeit a nihilist and cynic one. The arms race didn’t bring the Soviet empire to it’s knees the promotion of human rights did (I am ready to argue that point). I believe moral can be justified in self interest: you are better off loving your neighbor because hating them can provoke their wrath.

  6. OK Wizard, I’ll bite… why do you think the promotion of human rights was a bigger factor in the fall of the Soviet Union than was the arms race?

    I notice that you added me to your blogroll, thank you very much.

  7. I agree with Matt from Matt-Speak in that this is a very insightful post. At the time, I couldn’t stand Reagan, but when he died and the retrospective of his life was reported, even my liberal father admitted he was a far greater man than any of us knew at the time.

    I think it’s very hard to have perspective about the time you’re living in because there is no hindsight and we don’t know how events will turn out. After time has past, all has become clear. Hence the cliche: Hindsight is 20/20.

    Perhaps Bush will be regarded more favorably as the years go by. But I will say, he never helped himself with his inability to articulate anything clearly and his constant bumbling at press conferences. Perhaps if he had a silver tongue, as Reagan and Clinton and Obama had/have, he would have been better regarded by Americans during his Presidency.

  8. Thanks, Matthew. I voted against Reagan twice, but I now think he ranks with Truman and the Roosevelts among the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

    Bush will never climb that high, but history will treat him more kindly than the chattering classes do now.

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  11. Kirk, this was very thoughtful and I appreciate and somewhat agree with its thought and sentiment! History will read the events as it will. I need to punctuate with our ongoing and thoughtful disagreements.

    1) there might have been a solar eclipse as well in 1990, but you will find that scholars regard Gorbachev’s rise and insistence on getting the budget under control and release of the republics’s defenses and defense budgets as the solution to the Cold War. If you don’t believe it, let me say, “Kirk, take down this wall!” and would you crumble in idol-worship of me as you are purporting Gorbachev did of Reagan? Evil name-calling is insignificant to history. haha.

    2)Your treatment of WMD isn’t as thoughtful: the historical record is complete on Saddam’s disassembling of WMD after the first Gulf War and Bush and Cheney’s dissembling on the evidence available. Valerie Plame’s book is excellent on the inside story, she was the CIA agent in charge of WMD in Iraq and she witnessed Doug Feith and the other dummies dummying up and releasing stories different from the CIA evidence.

    3) I’d caution any kind of idol-worship of Bush II. The long-term results may well be good. Then, Egypt and Libya toppled dictators without an American war. What caused those as well should also be judged by history not here.

    But let me give you a thought. Iran-Contra weakened Reagan. Who knows if that led to his non-retribution (possibly still ok) to Khobar Towers and Beirut that strengthened Saddam’s resolve to invade Kuwait, and the fundamentalists’s reaction to infidels’s boots on the ground in Saudi and Bush and Cheney’s initlal security incompetence led to 9/11 and the whole cycle? And Bush I’s non-support of Kurds led to the Taliban?

    Reagan is lionized in current history, but maybe the facts don’t show radical policy decisions that circumvent the legal-political process to be so wise.

  12. Dan, the comments of a three-year-old post may not be the best forum for an extended debate, but I’ll respond briefly to your numbered items.

    1. “You will find that scholars regard…” is an inauspicious way to launch an argument. If you’d like to link to one of these scholars, I’ll take a look.

    In the meantime, we can agree that Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, played an important role in ending the Cold War. I assert he was driven to that role by the American military buildup that began under President Carter in the late 70s and accelerated under President Reagan — http://www.heritage.org/federalbudget/defense-entitlement-spending shows the inflection points pretty clearly. Gorbachev started talking about perestroika and glasnost because he knew that if the sclerotic Soviet economy tried to keep pace with the American buildup, food riots in Russia were not far away. I believe the moral clarity of “tear down this wall” was important, but clearly it would have been ineffective without the military and economic factors.

    2. Valerie Plame is not exactly a disinterested, objective observer. I’ll stand by what I said above: “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?”

    3. I do not idolize President Bush — he’s a big-government Republican who stubbornly stayed with Donald Rumsfeld for years after the failure of the Rumsfeld strategy was clear. I could run through a whole litany of conservative quarrels with Bush. But I certainly prefer Bush to his successor.

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