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A World of Gray

CANBERRA – Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident turned president, and North Korean despot Kim Jong-il might have lived on different planets, for all their common commitment to human dignity, rights, and democracy. When they died just a day apart this month, the contrast was hard for the global commentariat to resist: Prague’s prince of light against Pyongyang’s prince of darkness.

But it is worth remembering that Manichaean good-versus-evil typecasting, to which former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were famously prone, and of which we have had something of a resurgence in recent days, carries with it two big risks for international policymakers.

One risk is that such thinking limits the options for dealing effectively with those who are cast as irredeemably evil. The debacle of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 should have taught us once and for all the peril of talking only through the barrel of a gun to those whose behavior disgusts us.

Sometimes, threats to a civilian population will be so acute and immediate as to make coercive military intervention the only option, as with Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, at least at the time of the imminent assault on Benghazi in March. But more often it will be a matter of relying on less extreme measures, like targeted sanctions and threats of international prosecution – and on diplomatic pressure and persuasion.