It is often speechwriters, not the politicians they work for, who form policy and determine the legacies of their bosses. Sometimes the speechwriters themselves, such as Canadian-born David Frum, go on to fame and fortune based at least partly on the historic resonance of their verbal concoctions, in his case the “Axis of Evil” phrase used by George W Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Frum was far from the first speechwriter to make his boss look like a righteous crusader against “evil.” One of the most famous exploiters of that word was Ronald Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Speechwriter Anthony Dolan was credited with coining that phrase, which Reagan reportedly first used in a talk to an evangelical Christian organization in 1983.
“Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness – pray they will discover the joy of knowing God,” the president told the faithful, going on to warn the Soviets against labeling both sides in the Cold War arms race equally at fault, “to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
However, like “freedom,” the word “evil” is nearly always inappropriate and lazy in a political context. As such, it often serves to cloud important issues, to gloss over important complexities. Even the greatest pariahs of modern history, such as Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Reagan himself (who oversaw deaths squads and terrorism in much of Latin America during his presidency), rarely pursued policies motivated by pure evil, though their actions often had terrible consequences over time.
It is often argued that Adolf Hitler was a special case, as there is considerable evidence that he had a deeply warped worldview through much if not all of his adult life. Anti-Semitism was certainly a major theme, some say the over-arching theme, in his guiding philosophy but even if other themes – such as nationalism – were also crucial, it is undeniable that his obsessive hatred of Jews predominated his (and the Nazis’) weltanschauung early on. And the results were undeniably evil.
Still, it is also true that much like many of today’s populists, Hitler was capable of keenly analyzing the deep ills of Weimar Germany, the role of other nations (especially the Allied victors of World War I) in the misery suffered by his fellow Germans, and the failure of the ruling class to reduce such suffering. He was also adept at capitalizing on public anger and dissatisfaction, largely by his rhetorical skills rather than by force (at least at first).
The skill and speed with which he adapted the Italian model of fascism to German needs after coming to power were remarkable, and it was his amazing peacetime accomplishments that really had the other European powers fretting in the mid-1930s, not his warlike nature and certainly not his anti-Semitism (which was also rife in their countries, as were anger among the working poor, disgust at the privileged classes, and rumblings of revolution).
Speculation is pointless, and history has already been written. Hitler may have invented the autobahn and the Volkswagen, but he reduced much of Europe to ashes and murdered millions of Jews, Slavs, Communists, homosexuals, and mentally ill people in cold blood. Yet it is hard not to imagine that had he not risen to power, someone else much like him would have eventually, given the dire realities in Germany at that time.
Strongmen rise to power in response to extreme circumstances, and often use that power in extreme ways not just to maintain their own power, but to continue to do battle against the challenges – the evils, in their view – they had responded to in the first place
And that’s the point. Strongmen rise to power in response to extreme circumstances, and often use that power in extreme ways not just to maintain their own power, but to continue to do battle against the challenges – the evils, in their view – they had responded to in the first place. And even in the preceding sentence, the word “extreme” is colored differently through different prisms.
In our own time, as determined by Western (mostly anglophone) media, the strongman most to be feared is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leaving aside the unproven and probably exaggerated (if not totally bogus) headline fodder about Putin’s penchant for “sowing discord” in Western democracies and poisoning retired Russian spies and their daughters, we can look at actual and well-documented “evils” such as the annexation of Crimea. The standard Western narrative is that Putin committed this “evil” because he himself is “evil.”
But this ignores – often deliberately – other facts, the most obvious of which is that a democratically elected, nominally pro-Russian regime in Kiev was overthrown, with the support if not actual assistance of the US, and a new regime hostile to Moscow installed in its place.
By treaty, Russia at the time had a strong military presence in Crimea that, because that peninsula was home to one of its few warm-water naval bases (another being in Syria), was of crucial strategic importance. Objective analysis would suggest that Putin would have been negligent if he had not taken drastic – some might say extreme – action to protect that base from a hostile regime in Kiev that, because of an administrative decision during the Soviet era, had been handed responsibility for Crimea despite its long history as a Russian possession and its large Russian-speaking population.
This is not meant to defend the Russian takeover – or reacquisition – of Crimea, or how it was done. It is meant merely to illustrate the fact that strongmen do not normally take such drastic actions for the mere fun of it. They have reasons, very good reasons in their view – and very often in the view of their own people.
Many other strongmen are castigated in the Western press as “brutal dictators,” and leaving aside for now the glaring double standards on who is “brutal” and who is not (often determined by who is willing to make the most Western-friendly deals on arms and oil), how is brutality itself defined? How is it motivated?
Again, do people like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “gas their own people” for the sheer joy of it, or to protect their capitals from sectarian fanatics armed and funded by foreigners? Did the late Muammar Gaddafi persecute those working to wrest power from him in Libya by force because it made him giggle? Did Saddam Hussein wield his renowned iron hand to give himself orgasms, or to maintain order as a cauldron of sectarian rivalry bubbled under the surface in Iraq?
There are no easy answers to such questions, but there are demonstrably wrong answers, the most obvious being “humanitarian intervention” (nearly always in oil-rich states) by foreign powers. While it is simplistic to say that such actions in places like Iraq and Libya were failures – to those who cheered them on most loudly, such as the arms, oil and “security” industries, they were financial bonanzas – they were disastrous to those the perpetrators pretended to want to help. And that is the main reason warmongers do not “learn from their mistakes” – they weren’t mistakes at all.
Perhaps that is too cynical. While the conversion of Libya from the most prosperous country in North Africa to a chaotic basket case of open slave markets and clearing house for Europe’s refugee crisis is largely forgotten by Western media, many Americans and some Britons now vocally lament their cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq.
The aforementioned David Frum said a few years ago: “It’s human nature to assess difficult questions not on the merits, but on our feelings about the different ‘teams’ that form around different answers.
“To cite a painful personal experience: During the decision-making about the Iraq war, I was powerfully swayed by the fact that the proposed invasion of Iraq was supported by those who had been most right about the Cold War – and was most bitterly opposed by those who had been wrongest about the Cold War.
“Yet in the end, it is not teams that matter. It is results. As William Lamb, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, bitterly quipped after a policy fiasco: ‘What wise men had promised has not happened. What the damned fools predicted has actually come to pass.’”