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Andy Stone: Right is good, respected is better

So now it’s war.

By the time you read this, the bombs have started to fall.

And with lives and the fate of nations hanging in the balance, our perceptions have to change.

Those of us who have been opposed to the war can continue to object – but our objections are suddenly trivial. The Furies are loose and we cannot stand in their way.

And those of us who have supported the war with eagerness can continue to voice that support – but just as suddenly we must soften the rabid vigor of our cheering. Lives are being lost and we cannot in good conscience scream for more mayhem.

It’s not shouting and playacting any longer. It’s real bombs and real lives.

As an American, I have to hope that the men and women we are sending into harm’s way will all return alive and healthy – even though I know that cannot be.

And, as a human being, I have to hope that our victory – which cannot be in question – will come swiftly, sparing as many lives as possible.

I do believe that, in the end, this war was inevitable. Saddam Hussein could not be other than who he is. And in this modern world of ours, a person such as that can no longer be tolerated.

But I do not believe that the shape and the nature of this war were inevitable. They could have been so much better – for us, for the Iraqis, for the world.

Perhaps now we might take a moment to consider one simple thought that should be as helpful to all of us as it would have been to George W. Bush:

Being right isn’t enough.

George Bush is right about Saddam Hussein – he is one of the most evil men of our time. Indeed, in terms of the sheer number of deaths he has caused, the sheer volume of human suffering he is responsible for, he is one of a small handful of the worst men of all time.

Getting rid of Saddam Hussein ought to be high on the list of priorities of every right-thinking nation on the face of this planet.

So, yes, George Bush is right.

And yet, that seems clearly not to be enough.

The vast weight of public opinion worldwide – East and West, Europe, America and Asia, Christian, Jew and Muslim alike – is running against President Bush by a staggering margin.

Even in the countries whose governments have chose to support this war, the people themselves seem to be 80 or 90 percent against the invasion of Iraq.

This is not a small thing, to be brushed aside with the arrogance of those who are certain of victory – and certain that victory will change everything.

I think it more likely that victory itself will be changed, diminished by the arrogance with which we asserted – to put it bluntly – “We are right. And to hell with all the rest of you.”

Certainly, it is better to be right than wrong. But it is also better to be respected than feared. It would have been better for us to realize that the world’s good opinion is a valuable thing to have.

And curiously, the fact that we don’t need the world’s help – the fact that we are strong enough to do as we please without anybody’s help – is all the more reason for us to seek the world’s good opinion.

That is part of the lesson we must learn – and part of the lesson that we alone can teach. That the strong must reach out to the weak. That strength must not breed arrogance.

We are proud that our nation, our strength, is based on an ideal: that all men are created equal. Bringing that ideal to all humankind should be our nation’s mission. But you cannot force someone to believe. You cannot convince someone of the rightness of an ideal through sheer force of arms.

Indeed, the men who proclaimed that all men are created equal began that same document – the Declaration of Independence – with the explanation that they were writing their proclamation out of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

The men who wrote that declaration in 1776 had more idealism than strength. Now we still declare our idealism, but we seem to rely more on our strength.

As I said, we will certainly win this war and win it quickly. But what will we have achieved in victory?

Will the world acknowledge that we were right? Or simply that we were strong. Will we be a shining light of freedom? Or the focus of a conflagration of hatred?

I suspect that the answer to both of these questions will be the second choice. We will be seen only as strong and we will be hated.

George Bush and his supporters are certain that the answers will come out the other way. I hope they are right.

But it didn’t have to be this way. The answer to those questions didn’t have to be hanging in the balance. We could have done better.

We could have acknowledged that being right is not enough. That being right and being strong is still not enough.

George Bush could have taken more to heart his own promise that he would be “a uniter, not a divider.” He could have found a way – beginning before this war loomed, before, indeed, September 11, 2001, – to show a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.

But now it is too late for that. Now it is war and we must hope only for a speedy victory – and hope against hope that being right somehow turns out to be enough.

[Andy Stone is the former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is andy@aspentimes.com.]


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