Cap'n Arbyte's
Main page

Zany stuff
Best blog articles
Technical articles
Blog archives



Non-blog sites
(coming soon)
(coming soon)

Working With the Enemy

Following a telephone conversation about Libya's WMD announcement, I realize that I have a lot more to say about the implications of this subject.

The ethical question is: Are we sanctioning evil by cooperating with people like Moammar Gadhafi?

(I mean sanction in the transitive verb sense, definition 2. Not definition 3. "Sanction" is one of those unfortunate words that can be their own antonyms, like "cleave" and "dust" and "trim". <grumble>)

The answer is yes, cooperation with evil people is a form of sanction. It lends a sense of legitimacy to people who do not deserve it. However, that doesn't mean we should never do it! One clear case where cooperation with evil deserves no objection is in hostage negotiation, where a proper application of the virtue of justice is to make the punishment of evil subordinate to the protection of the lives of the hostages. The first priority is to establish the safety of the innocent, and the second priority is to punish the evildoers. (Depending on the circumstances, refusing to negotiate is of course a legitimate option.)

This pattern also applied to the cooperation of the Allied powers with the Soviet Union in World War II. The best way to defeat Germany — to secure the primary goal of winning the war — was to fight on many fronts simultaneously. Cooperation with Stalin, certainly one of the most evil men who has ever lived, should be evaluated with that context in mind. (The unsatisfying settlement at the war's conclusion is a topic too large to discuss here.)

Another example is the efforts of intelligence agents, who must often deal with evil people — and in some cases commit evil acts — for the purpose of gathering information useful to fighting against that evil on a larger scale. This is the attitude I take toward my participation in an environmentalist discussion group earlier this year.

On a wider scale, this form of temporary "cooperation with evil" in the pursuit of more important goals has been an obvious part of the War Against Terrorism. Many people underestimate the scope of what we're doing. This war isn't about defeating Al Qaeda or about freeing the Iraqi people from a tyrant, it's about fundamentally reforming the Middle East so as to end the ideological poison emanating from places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will take decades to complete; it's on the scale of the Cold War.

Iraq itself was not the most dangerous nation in the region, but it was the only one politically possible to attack. (There are many other practical reasons why it was appropriately the first target.) This fact directed us into a strategy of "cooperating" with the more evil nations such as Saudi Arabia for the purpose of preventing them from uniting against us which would have made ultimate success too costly. We will deal with those other nations in time, and as circumstances require.

I reject the line of thinking that only wholly-savory strategies are permissible. It is important to move quickly, which necessitates choosing the best of the available alternatives — and no utopian alternatives are available. The path we have chosen involves a great loss of blood and treasure and freedoms at home and an expansion of cronyism. I do not condone these negative effects, but I do view them as outweighed by the progress being made in the War. Of the realistic, politically possible, non-utopian alternatives, I think the United States has chosen well. I am open to modifications of our strategy that limit its negative effects, but not at the cost of success. Sadly, most who oppose the war are not suggesting better alternatives, they're just complaining.

Sun Tsu advises that "supreme excellence in war lies in causing your opponent to surrender without a fight." The Libyan announcement demonstrates that our firm handling of Iraq is leading to success at this level. Obviously we do not have much trust in the Libyan government, but at present it appears that the weapons inspectors are genuinely welcome and are not being routinely thwarted as was the case in Iraq.

Dismantling Libya's WMD programs will make the world a safer place, including for Americans. The current path does involve a level of cooperation with evil, but the alternatives are not attractive by comparison. Invasion to remove the tyrant is politically impossible (and would be costly), while refusing to negotiate on moral grounds that we shouldn't sanction evil will not be effective at removing the objective threat posed by Libya's weapons programs. It would also have the seriously negative effect of causing other enemy nations to believe they have nothing to gain by buckling to our diplomatic pressure — it would make them more resistant, rather than more compliant, actually making the War Against Terrorism more dangerous for us than it needs to be.

UPDATE 2003-12-22 16:29:39 UTC: Isn't this pure pragmatism?

No, no, emphatically no! I only support temporary cooperation with evil, and only for the purpose of undermining it. In this sense it's not truly "cooperation" at all — it's taking advantage of (and in some cases creating) an opportunity to fight against evil. We should certainly be mindful of the future effects of that cooperation and attempt to minimize the damage, but the future can't be known with certainty and there are definitely risks involved.

What bothers me is when a holier-than-thou "principled" person declares that we should not (for example) cooperate with Pakistan because Musharraf is a military dictator. They'll scream that I'm a "pragmatist" but in fact they are dropping the context of this war on a gargantuan scale. Without Pakistan's support, it would have been vastly more difficult to effectively attack al Qaeda in Afghanistan. "Principled" people ought to recognize the fact — the fact — that there are no utopian solutions here and that their childish demand for one leads to paralysis and an unwillingness to defend the very things they claim to value. It's disgusting.

Perhaps that's too uncharitable. They're willing to defend their values in writing, of course, which is good. The trouble with that approach is that we're at war with brainwashed religious zealots who are not open to rational persuasion. They seem to know this, and aren't trying to engage in debate with our actual enemies. This makes me doubt their effectiveness.

It's essential to understand that our enemies in this war are genocidal. No peaceful coexistence is possible, but this is by their decision, not ours. Read Osama bin Laden's fatwah if you need convincing:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…

We — with God's help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.

When no utopian alternatives exist — and in warfare they likely never do — the best we can do is to reduce the net threat to Americans by temporarily propping up a lesser evil in order to destroy a far greater one. We are not omnipotent, we cannot make the world perfect all at once.

Tiny Island