The lesser of two evils: responsibility
In the comments section of my Reagan post, an interesting question came up. How responsible are politicians (or, as they used to be called, statesmen--now we'd have to say "statespeople" instead) for the consequences of their actions? Are they responsible for all of them? Should they be able to have foreseen everything?
Of course not--but how much foresight is it reasonable to require of them? How much is humanly possible? And do we understand that there are no actions one can take in the political realm that don't have some negative consequences?
Commenter "Huan" had the following excellent point to make: people are responsible for their actions, but "the lines of guilt only go so far"--otherwise the arguments will resemble "butterfly wing flutter causing a hurricane bizarro world" absurdities.
That's a pretty good description of some of the arguments I've heard from the left that attribute every evil on earth to the actions of the United States. Although the entire science of ethics is an attempt to make the best and most moral decisions knowing that, in the real world, a perfect decision is not possible, sometimes it seems to me as though the left is dedicated to ignoring that obvious fact (except, of course, on the not-so-rare occasions when they themselves have been the ones making the decisions with the terrible consequences).
(Huan's "butterfly wing flutter" is a reference, by the way, to chaos theory, which states that there are always unpredictable results to any event.)
I read a story a while back that brought the point home to me that no one can know the ultimate effects of their (or anyone's) actions. I read it so long ago that I don't remember the book, so I can't offer a link, but the author was talking about an incident in Hitler's early adulthood:
During Hitler's "struggling artist" days he went through a period in which he was down and out. He wanted desperately to be a painter, but was twice refused entrance by the Academy of Arts in Vienna. He even stayed for a time in a shelter for the homeless. At one point, he became desperately ill and was in fact near death, but was found by a kindly couple who took him in and nursed him back to health.
So here we have three acts that might have changed the course of history. If only the Academy had thought better of his art, he might have finished out his life as a journeyman painter. If the homeless shelter hadn't fed and housed him, would he have survived? And of course that kindly Good Samaritan couple, the protagonists of the story that grabbed my attention--did they later have reason to regret their well-intentioned act? In one version, I think the couple even may have been Jewish--which makes me think the story was apocryphal. But no matter--true or not, it illustrates a point.
Obviously, these acts are somewhat different than the decisions a politician faces when deciding whether to support the lesser of two evils. Feeding the homeless, nursing the ill--surely, these are unambiguously good acts, and we would never want people to stop performing them. But, like the flutter of those butterfly wings, we can't ignore the fact that even unequivocably moral acts can have terrible consequences. However, we cannot hold the people committing those acts responsible for all those consequences--even though, if they were to learn of those consequences, they themselves might feel terribly guilty.
Politicians make decisions constantly, and must bear the consequences. But, in judging the degree of their responsibility, we need to be cognizant of what they knew at the time, what could have been reasonably predicted as consequences--and, most especially, what were the available alternatives, and what were the likely consequences of not acting.
That's an awful lot to chew on. It's far easier to make facile criticisms that assume the 20/20 perfection of hindsight.
One of the best writers on the scene--and yes, a neocon, although certainly not a neo-neocon--is Charles Krauthammer. He recently wrote a highly recommended article (hat tip: Dr. Sanity). It features, among many other things, an excellent discussion of the "lesser of two evils" dilemma. If you have a moment, please take a look.