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COLUMN RIGHT : Striking a Balance With Evil : Democracies tend to compromise--but compromise with the likes of Hussein would be unavailing and unjust.

<i> Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the forthcoming "Exporting Democracy" (AEI Press)</i>

As if it were lamp oil, the 11 million barrels of Kuwaiti crude that Saddam Hussein dumped into the Persian Gulf has illuminated the deepest issues of the Gulf War. For those out protesting the war, most of whom hold ecological concerns dear, the picture of dying cormorants may bring it all home more powerfully than a thousand words in Amnesty International reports about the murder of Kuwaitis. But there are lessons in it for us all concerning the existence of evil in the world and the necessity--and difficulty--of confronting it.

President Bush linked this act of ecocide to other vicious but militarily useless acts by Hussein: the Scud missile attacks on Israeli and Saudi cities and the abuse of POWs. Yet there is a difference. Cowardly and vile as are the Scud attacks, cruel and illegal as is the abuse of prisoners, we can grasp that Hussein sees Israel and Saudi Arabia and the POWs as his enemies. But what conceivable grievance has he against the water fowl and fishes?

The answer must be that he believes he can hurt us by sheer vandalism. He seems to recognize there is something in our hearts that aches over the sight of destruction--of fellow humans, especially, but even of other creatures or the Earth itself. He sees this as a weakness that can be exploited because no similar feeling exists in his heart.

How can we know that he is so hardened? We know from the brutal ravaging of Kuwait. We know, too, from the grotesque accounts of the torture of Iranian prisoners during Hussein’s last war of aggression. We know finally from the killings and maimings of Iraqis and Kurds that were Hussein’s ladder to power and have remained the hallmark of his reign.

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When we look at Hussein, we are staring at the face of evil, but we are slow to recognize it because evil, as British authors James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keefe pointed out in a brilliant essay in Encounter a decade ago, is a category that has all but vanished from the Western political vocabulary.

The reason for this lies in our religious heritage, which tells us that all men, even our enemies, are God’s children, and in our democratic political philosophy, which rests on open-mindedness, compromise and acceptance of our own fallibility. These tenets are not only humane, they have also proved their utility: Our societies have flourished like none before. But they have also proved paralyzing when we have been confronted by evil.

The democracies appeased Hitler as if he were nothing more than a man with a grievance about the inequities of the Versailles Treaty. We treated Stalin as if his depredations could be chalked up to zealous idealism or overly cautious patriotism. Only Khrushchev made us accept the grimmer truth. And even after 1956 we were inclined to see Stalin’s successors and imitators as politicians not much different from our own. (As Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance once put it: President Jimmy Carter and Secretary General Leonid I. Brezhnev “have similar dreams and aspirations about the most fundamental issues.”)

In the 1980s, strategic calculations led us to Iraq’s corner in its war with Iran, and, much as with Stalin in World War II, we put out of our minds Hussein’s blood-soaked rule, repression of the Kurds and sponsorship of international terrorism. Even after the annihilation of Kuwait, voices among us urged “compromise” with Hussein by offering him an island or an oil field or a conference.

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But to compromise with evil is as unavailing as it is unjust. Explaining evil is a challenge for theology. Combatting evil is a political imperative for the democracies. The paradox is that the very certitude and unyieldingness that must be summoned in the fight against evil run counter to democracy’s ethos. After all, since Hussein (like Stalin and Hitler before him) says it is we who are evil, who can be sure who is right?

This paradox has no neat solution. The best we can do is to strike a balance. We must remain sensitive to our own imperfections and open to the views of others. But when we begin to hear egregious lies and to see corpses pile up, we must be prepared to recognize that we are no longer up against a man with a different opinion but a man who must be stopped.

If Hussein’s perverse act of nihilism helps a new generation of Americans to understand this, then some good will yet come of the awful destruction.


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