An Unstable Situation

In just a few days, I’m to debate at the University Philosophical Society of Trinity College in Dublin.

Trinity was founded in 1592. The philosophical society — better known as the “Phil” — is of more recent vintage: It traces its lineage back to the 17th century.

Those who have preceded me at this forum include Alexis de Tocqueville and Bertrand Russell. Then again, in recent years the smarmy British socialist George Galloway, the Holocaust denier David Irving and the porn star Ron Jeremy also have been guests.

The resolution I’ll be debating: “This house believes that George W. Bush is a danger to world stability.” The members of the Phil presumably came to me because they could find no one in Europe willing to publicly dispute this widely accepted notion.

And, upon reflection, I’m not sure I will either. Perhaps President Bush does endanger stability. But is “stability” really the goal that free people should pursue?

The world has not experienced stability in recent times. Just ask the Yugoslavs or the Soviets or the Ottomans or the Austro-Hungarians. The 20th century was a period of bloody struggles as aggressive totalitarian movements _ Fascism, Nazism, Japanese Militarism and Communism _ sought to terminate the democratic experiment.

There were then, as there are now, many who opposed such conflicts and urged preemptive capitulation. Recall that on February 9th, 1933, the Oxford Union approved the resolution “that this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country.”

Hitler must have been encouraged to hear that. Just a few months later he would begin burning books in Berlin. With the notable exception of Winston Churchill, most Europeans were less outraged than intimidated _ they were unwilling to endanger the “stability” that followed the first global war. The result: Within a decade most of the continent was under Hitler’s jackboot.

To outsiders, the Middle East may have appeared stable before Bush came to office. In fact, it has long been a region where people are deprived of basic human rights, and where vast oil wealth is enjoyed by ruling classes while masses endure grinding poverty.

To preserve the mirage of Middle Eastern stability has meant permitting Syria to occupy Lebanon and letting extremist mullahs stealthily develop nuclear weapons.

A book just published in France, “Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein” (The Black Book of Saddam Hussein), concludes that what passed for stability in Iraq cloaked the taking of a million lives and the creation of more than 4 million refugees.

For decades, and as long as the oil flowed, it has been convenient to turn a blind eye when Muslims massacre Muslims (e.g. the Anfal campaign, 180,000 Kurds murdered) or Arabs slaughter Arabs (e.g. Hama, more than 20,000 Syrians murdered), to ignore the spread of aggressive totalitarian ideologies throughout the Middle East and beyond _ into Africa and Asia and corners of Europe.

Even when terrorists struck we responded fecklessly. How that must have encouraged them.

Conflicts are sometimes inevitable _ delay only ensures they will be more painful when they erupt. World War II would not have been so costly _ indeed, might never have occurred _ had Hitler been challenged in 1933 or soon after.

In retrospect, was it a wise decision to leave Saddam in power in 1992 after he attempted to wipe an entire nation off the map? And if, instead of toppling Saddam in 2003, we had postponed the conflict, would the result have been increased stability _ or something like what occurred as a consequence of avoiding a showdown with Osama bin Laden during the 1990s when we knew full well he was training thousands of terrorists to come after us?

For decades, the desire for stability has led us to support not Arabs and Muslims who advocate freedom and democracy, but their oppressors. That led many in the Middle East to conclude, with some justification, that they had nowhere to turn except to Islamic fascists.

So perhaps the resolution the Phil should be debating is not whether Bush endangers stability, but whether fear of change could be the greatest danger of all.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)