See no evil

Two years ago, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal aptly called former U.S. President Jimmy Carter "an international nuisance who aspires to be a menace." But it is curious how often the current president, despite all the powers his office gives him to do real harm, seems to be stuck merely being annoying.

Consider Barack Obama's new nuclear doctrine. He claims the United States would not retaliate with nuclear weapons against a nation that attacked it with chemical or biological weapons but was in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This assertion probably isn't even true. But it's certainly worrisome.

It is made worse, not better, by its misleading veneer of good sense. The ostensible idea is to give nations an incentive to comply with the NNPT rather than go about providing terrorists with radioactive material. The goal is appealingly rational: Nobody wants terrorists to have nuclear devices except terrorists and their more deranged sympathizers. And the method looks rational, too: It relies on incentives rather than exhortation.

The difficulty is that it only affects people who are seriously considering attacking America with weapons of mass destruction. And the only change from their point of view is that if they pick the right WMD, they supposedly face far less devastating retaliation than before. So making such an attack now appears more attractive while not making it looks just the same.

I say "appears" advisedly. This so-called policy doesn't even really help the bad guys, because a major biological attack on the United States by an identifiable government is just as likely to provoke a nuclear response as before the president's fatuous babbling. But it might trick them into thinking otherwise. So all it really does is marginally increase the risk that thousands of Americans and then thousands of non-Americans will die. Not exactly a win-win policy, is it?

I must not call making it more tempting for evil regimes to try to slaughter millions of the citizens Obama is sworn to protect "stupid" in the technical sense. Obama is many things, but he's not dumb. Indeed, I think what really lies behind this policy is a very bad idea held primarily by smart people.

I believe the real conceptual basis of this gesture is the notion that tension in the world is due, in large part, to fear of the democracies and their bullying foreign policies, so measures to reduce that fear by softening both the tone of American foreign policy and the military capacity behind it will make aggression against the West less rather than more likely. Again, one cannot properly label this policy "stupid" because it is held by large numbers of intelligent people, just as it was in the 1930s, the 1900s, and indeed the 1970s. But it is a very, very bad idea.

So is the just-concluded gabfest about better control of nuclear material which, again, had a dangerously misleading coating of good sense about it. Its goal was not irrational. Nobody except maniacs favour careless handling of things that could atomically go boom. Nor is the method stupid; it cannot hurt for decent governments to pay more attention to where they put dangerous radioactive stuff. But can anyone show me an example from history where real, stupidity-class carelessness in the handling of potentially dangerous material played a major role in letting the villains strike at the good guys?

No. The real dangers are quite different. What has encouraged aggression since recorded history began is, first, a pervasive and consistent reluctance to accept the existence of evil in the world and, second, an even more pervasive and consistent reluctance to deal with evil once you have been forced to notice it. A relatively trivial, but revealing, example is the Canadian proposal to impose an oil embargo on Italy after Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935. This proposal got people's attention, because it would really have hurt, and was promptly repudiated by all the democracies including, humiliatingly, Canada's own.

The result, naturally, was to embolden evil. It tipped the bad guys off that we knew they were bad, but assured them we were currently unwilling to do anything important or painful about it so they should arm fast and strike hard before we recovered our wits and spines. Which very nearly led to Hitler conquering the world. And, again, everybody knew Hitler was re-arming Germany in violation of its international obligations. It was their unwillingness to act on this knowledge, not careless handling of tank parts, that led to the blitzkrieg.

For Barack Obama to expend time and effort and enlist the prestige of his office on initiatives that distract us from the need to acknowledge and confront evil is certainly irritating. On reflection, I'm inclined to find it scary as well.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson