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Immoral equivalence

The systems aren't equal, but the men at the top have too much in common

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

No wonder President Clinton has found it so easy to wrap up an unexpected deal with Saddam Hussein. Both men are masters at the art of delay. And both are masters at the specialty of moving the physical evidence. It's hard, in fact, to tell which has more to learn from the other on those two fronts. The two men have at least one other characteristic in common: As skilled as they are at protecting their own hides, the good they achieve for themselves isn't necessarily good for their countrymen. Both men seem to spend at least as much time hustling up their own protection as they do seeking the long-term well-being of their respective societies. All my life, I've heard America-bashers talk about how we don't have any right to tell the rest of the world how to conduct its affairs since we don't do such a hot job of administering justice here at home either. During the war in Vietnam, it was common to criticize our role in Southeast Asia with the reminder that we hadn't solved the problems of poverty and racism here at home. The Soviet Union maybe had its problems, these critics would point out right up until the end of the Cold War (and beyond), but were their difficulties really any more embarrassing than our deep problems here at home? Who were we to say our system was best? Critics of such critics took them to task--and properly so--for suggesting there was some sort of "moral equivalence" between the two big systems seeking control of the world. Yes, these folks admitted, we had problems at home. But at least we weren't marching big segments of the population around at gunpoint, forcing them at the risk of their lives to do what the government said they must do. So for the last half-century, I do think it was a smear against our country-with all its faults-to suggest it was operating at the same moral plane as its enemies. Such charges imputed more evil to our system than it deserved and attributed more virtue to tyrannical systems than they deserved. But now I'm not so sure. When you no longer have confidence whether it's your own president, or the enemy he's negotiating with, that is the greater master of pretense, the term moral equivalence takes on a dark and scary turn. All the talk about "no connection between private morality and public performance" goes swooshing down the drain at center stage. Of course there's a connection. And it's as if the great God of history has now deliberately posited these two devious men beside and against each other to make that very point. So now Mr. Clinton recommends that we honor an agreement with a man of whom a Washington Post editorial says: "Saddam Hussein evidently is promising to honor an arms-inspection agreement that he made in 1991 and toyed with and broke in 1997, and that he renewed last November and broke again in January. He is not offering to yield up suspect facilities and weapons but to let others try to penetrate the secrecy he has wrapped them in." The description sounds eerily like that of Mr. Clinton's own habits right in his own White House. New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal rejected moral equivalence: "By what [United Nations] Secretary-General Kofi Annan said or failed to say he treated the Iraqi dictatorship as the moral equivalent of the United States and other countries that are still trying to find and destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.... UN records have detailed reports of Saddam's security guards blocking UN inspectors from getting into suspected sites scores of times, shoving them around, even throttling a UN pilot to prevent him from spotting a likely site. To lump UN inspectors at all with Iraqi security thugs is astonishing." Maybe so-but to sense some behavior patterns uncannily common to both nations' leaders takes no effort at all. Not for a second am I suggesting there really is right now something like a moral equivalence between the United States and Iraq. Our freedoms here are still profound, and God's grace on this country is extravagant. But to make Saddam Hussein the symbol of the Iraqi nation, as if it were thoroughly evil to its core, and to let Mr. Clinton continue to symbolize some ethereal force of right and good, is very much to miss an important point.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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