February 28, 2011
America is confronted once again with the near demise of a head of state with which we had established a diplomatic relationship: Colonel Muhammar Qaddafi, who by all accounts is a brutal dictator. American foreign policy has a long history of associating with questionable characters and brutal dictators such as Pinochet in Chile, The Somozas in Nicaragua and the Duvaliers in Haiti and the Shah of Iran. This list, sadly is far from exhaustive.
The realpolitik approach is that these people are in authority, as head of states, often illegitimate by democratic standards, and that we do not have a choice but to deal with them. If we only associated with people we approved of, we would be totally isolated.
However we need to have the moral courage to exert as much influence as possible to obtain the respect of human rights. We have often failed in this endeavor. We have most often opted for our best interest in stability, security and financial advantages to the detriment of our ideals of freedom and democracy. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, wrote: “We should signal more clearly that we align ourselves with 21st-century aspirations for freedom rather than the brutality of a medieval ruler.”
We, as individuals, also find ourselves in similar situations when dealing with people whose behavior we object to or find totally reprehensible. Would you buy a house from someone you know was a convicted rapist or would you rent out your apartment to a child molester? Would you work for someone who you knew for a fact was defrauding his clients and/or cheating on his taxes? Would you sign a contract with a Holocaust denier?
Where do we draw the line between an association we can tolerate and one we can’t, and what are the criteria that will determine our decision?
Let me list some ideas. We should:
1. Make sure we make a distinction between hearsay and facts. We have to be reasonably sure that the information we have is accurate.
2. Be aware that bad associations taint us, causing damage to our own reputation and may, in some cases, make us an accomplice to a crime.
3. Ask ourselves whether by our association we are somehow enabling the individual in question in pursuing the precise behavior we disapprove of?
4. Be aware there may be a cost to our refusal to associate ourselves with certain individuals or organizations and be ready to pay for that cost.
5. Remember that ultimately it is our decision to make and that we may have more options than we think. I never like to hear the sentence “we had no other choices” because most to the time we do.
As Roy Disney once said:
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”