THE LEFT, both in America and abroad, despises "evil"the word, that is.
Evil deeds and personages it can tolerate. It makes excuses for traitors and apologies for terrorists. It spent much of the Cold War trying to explain why the Soviet Union wasn’t all bad, how Communism was really well-intentioned.
It’s the term "evil" that the left will not countenance. It protested vehemently when Ronald Reagan used the four-letter word to describe the Soviet Empire. It denounced President George W. Bush as a simpleton for referring to terrorists in general as "evildoers" and Osama bin Laden in particular as "the evil one."
The sound of Bush’s using the e-word five separate times during his State of the Union speech, calling Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil," was just too much for the left-wing intelligentsia to bear. America’s allies, its enemies, and elements of its own press were quick to condemn the comments as thoughtless and undiscriminating, insufficiently subtle and excessively provocative.
The nature and the intensity of left-wing objections to the "evil" moniker were curious. After all, could anyone argue in all seriousness that the description is inaccurate?
For its part, Iran has worked hard to put on a more pro-Western face since Sept. 11, but a few goodwill gestures hardly make up for nearly 23 years of state-sponsored wickedness since radical Muslims took over in 1979. And even as Iran offers support for the war in Afghanistan, it has tried to smuggle 50 tons of weapons to terrorists in Palestine. Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed reports that Teheran might also have helped senior al Qaeda and Taliban forces escape Afghanistan.
For all the pretenses of cooperation, and the hope that reformers might take over, the Iranian government remains firmly ensconced in the "evil" camp.
The case against the Iraqi regime is even clearer. Saddam Hussein has not only gassed his own people, but, as the Washington Post (one of few left-leaning media outlets that supported the use of the "evil" term) points out in a recent editorial, he is deliberately starving them as well, in an effort to lift American sanctions against his country. Saddam has made little secret of his desire to acquire even more destructive weapons and to share them with any state or group willing to use them against Americans.
Then there’s North Korea, the world’s last remaining Stalinist enclave, a regime that accords no basic rights whatsoever, and which would rather let millions of its own citizens starve than compromise its Communist orthodoxy.
It’s hard to imagine three states more deserving of the "evil" tag. So why do leftists find Bush’s application of it so unnerving?
The standard explanation is diplomacy. The conventional wisdom, whether it’s repeated on NPR or in the New York Times, is that calling bad guys to task will make them worse. Tough rhetoric complicates the efforts of indigenous reformers, and gives aid to the countries’ hard-liners.
But these explanations ring hollow. Coddling hostile states is never the way to bring them around; it only makes their leaders think they can get away with their transgressions. Reagan’s "Evil Empire" rhetoric and policies did far more to bring the Soviets to heel than détente ever did. Besides, in Iraq and North Korea, there are no reformers in positions of power. Fear alonefear of the consequences of continued malfeasanceis the best hope for prompting change. The same goes for Iran, where reformers still have a long way to go.
America’s allies are also uneasy about the tough talk for the same reason that American leftists are: They’re uncomfortable about making strong moral judgments of any kind. Moreover, moral proclamations usually entail a call to action that they would just as soon not heed.
The problem, in part, stems from traditional anti-Americanism. For an American president to stand before the world and denounce certain nations as "evil" is to suggest that the U.S. can rightfully claim some sort of moral superiority, something the America-hating left has long been loath to admit. Leftists are so accustomed to looking for examples of the country’s failure to live up to its ideals that they often overlook the ideals themselves, ideals that set it apart from the world’s tyrannies.
The greater point, though, is that a certain strain of relativism, albeit one that’s unfulfilled and highly inconsistent, infects left-wing thought and greatly hampers its abilities to make moral distinctions. Consider Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s complaint that "the problem with the word ‘evil’ is not that it is necessarily wrong, but that it is a label. It explains nothing and obliterates distinctions that can be important."
Cohen has it exactly backwards. The word "evil" is useful precisely because it’s a label, because its meaning is unambiguous and easily understood. Rather than dwelling on the "distinctions," i.e. the mitigating factors that might explain the countries’ iniquities, it focuses on the questions that truly matter: Does the nation aim to promote human freedom and dignity, or crush them?
It’s not that complicated. America is in a war that ultimately boils down to good versus evil. Fortunately, it has a president who can tell the difference, even if his critics can’t.