The Sole Superpower’s Struggle with Good and Evil

by Wayne McCormack – 

Human beings seem to be hard-wired to think in terms of good and evil. That tendency has contributed to the violence of our world as fundamentalists viewed history as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Less extreme, but still problematic, are some of the polemics that are contributing to the dire state of our political system at the moment. American credibility has plummeted in the international arena while at home, the credibility of our government is rapidly collapsing under the weight of arguments that sound in terms of good and evil.

There are many in the “liberal” camp who were tempted to think of the Bush administration as evil, a mistake similar to the mistakes that the regime itself made. Now the liberal camp has lost faith in the Obama Administration for its inability or unwillingness to address the excesses of its predecessors or to make headway in selling a balanced approach to our domestic fiscal crises. And, of course, the right has its Tea Party and Obama-bashing, the extreme versions of which seem determined literally to destroy the federal government. Any of this could be thought of as evil by the other side.

I firmly believe that none of the major players in either administration is or was an evil person. In fact, in classic Greek tragedy fashion, their weaknesses probably flowed directly from their strengths. To place these issues in the perspective of Global Justice, let’s look at some numbers.

The combination of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with future costs of veterans’ benefits and related homeland security expenditures, was estimated at 3.3 trillion dollars in 2011 – the eventual outlay may be several times that number. American deaths in Iraq were reportedly 4486 through 2012 while Iraqi death estimates ranged anywhere from 109,000 to over 1,000,000. For Afghanistan, the American death toll stood at 2156 through 2012, while the estimates of Afghan civilian and national forces killed between 2007 and 2012 were somewhere around 20,000. And neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is likely to stabilize into a recognizable free democracy in the foreseeable future. Imagine what we could have done with that amount of money and saving of lives if we had approached the problem of terrorism in a more pragmatic and less passionate fashion.

The idea that America can do what we need to do because we are the good guys is known widely as “American exceptionalism.” It can be traced to the thought processes of the American traditions of Yankee optimism – our “can do” attitude. The sequence goes something like this:

The Twentieth Century was forecast by Alexis de Tocqueville’s depiction of Russia and the U.S. as contending superpowers. It turned out that the fundamental clash would be between the power of open societies versus the power of closed societies, complicated by cultural clashes between East and West. Both culture and political structure are powerful forces. To many participants, we were in a cosmic struggle between good and evil.

When the good guys on the side of democracy won the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 reinforced the self-image of the West as the good guys who prevailed in the struggle between good and evil. Then, following 9/11, by October 2001 the U.S. held hitherto unparalleled power and credibility on the world stage. We had the opportunity to reshape in fundamental ways how the world would go about resolving its problems. Instead, we resorted to tried and true methods of violence.

We invaded Afghanistan and thought we were on a fast track to eliminating terrorist threats. Then in some kind of idealistic trance, the administration thought to impose their view of democracy on another people in Iraq. This was a dreadful mistake but it was not the product of evil intent. The “Yankee can do” attitude combined with the extolling of a victorious generation produced the desire among many of this generation of Americans to democratize the world. The decision elite of 2003 forgot to ask whether the people of Iraq wanted us to take over their country, and then forgot to ask what to do after we had it.

The debacle of Iraq flows directly from the belief in the fundamental righteousness of our cause and the overwhelming optimism of the American spirit. Now is an important time to remember that we are all human and we all make mistakes. Some of the biggest mistakes come from the biggest virtues. Those of us who disagreed with the invasion of Iraq and foresaw the difficulties it would produce had better remember that we are not the good guys in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. The politicians in Washington are not truly evil persons, just caught up in the mythology of their own power.

Now is also a good time to reflect on the values of various systems of governance. Democracy may be, in Churchill’s words, “the worst system of government except for all the others.” But in fact, in many areas of the world democracy may not be the best mode of entering the new century. Throughout the Middle East, the most successful governments have been monarchies. True, any monarchy will tend in the direction of abusive power, but there are also benevolent monarchies that function well as transitions to democracy. The point is to be cautious and reflective about what we seek rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion. Good and evil certainly exist in the world, and we want to be on the right side of that clash, but the world is also an exercise in good sense and humanitarian values.

Wayne McCormack is a Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Counter-Terrorism, International Criminal Law, Torts, and Civil Procedure. From 1997-2002 he coordinated the University of Utah’s involvement with the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and that experience led to security planning for major events and interest in international legal issues, including the law related to terrorism.