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The lesser of two evils principle (or lesser evil principle) is the principle that when faced with selecting from two unpleasant options, the one which is least harmful should be chosen.
It is one of the central tenets of realpolitik. During the Cold War-era, the "lesser evil" pragmatic foreign policy principle was used by the United States and, to a lesser extent, several other countries. The principle dealt with the United States of America's attitude regarding how dictators of Third World nations ought to be handled, and was closely related to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine of Jeane Kirkpatrick.
The lesser of two evils principle is often discussed as a rationale for tactical voting, especially under voting systems such as first-past-the-post which favor a two-party system. Voters well to the left or right of the mainstream parties may choose to vote for one of them anyway, instead of a fringe party, on the lesser evil principle.
In warfare and conflict
An early example of the lesser of two evils principle in politics was the slogan "Better the turban than the mitre", used by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Conquest by Western Roman Catholic powers (the mitre) would likely mean forcible conversion to the Catholic faith, while conquest by the Muslim Ottoman Empire (the turban) would mean second-class citizenship but would at least allow Orthodox Christians to retain their current religion. In a similar manner, the Protestant Dutch resistance against Spanish rule in the 16th century used the slogan Liever Turks dan Paaps (better a Turk than a Papist).
The Government of the United States had long stated that democracy was one of the cornerstones of U.S. society, and therefore that support for democracy should also be reflected in U.S. foreign policy. But following the Second World War, dictatorships of various types continued to hold power over many of the world's most strategically and economically important regions. Many of these dictatorships were pro-capitalist, consistent with at least some U.S. ideological goals; thus the United States would form alliances with certain dictators, believing them to be the closest thing their respective nations had to a legitimate government—and in any case much better than the alternative of a communist revolution in those nations. This struggle posed a question: if the end result was, in any realistic case, destined to be a dictatorship, should the US not try to align itself with the dictator who will best serve American interests and oppose the Soviets? This is what became known as the "lesser of two evils" principle.
Earlier, during World War II, the Western Allies justified their support for Joseph Stalin under a lesser of two evils principle. Justifying the act, Winston Churchill said, "If Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons." Meanwhile, self-declared socialist movements had their own versions of "lesser of two evils" policies such as justifying their Popular Front Against Fascism by arguing that allying with capitalist powers to overthrow fascism would be better than having the latter successfully occupy the world and permanently consolidate power. From the communist view, the primary scourge of the planet at that point was fascism, and that under the circumstances, fascism had to be defeated first and communist revolution could come after that.
Some time later, the decision of the leadership of the People's Republic of China to seek rapprochement with the United States in the 1970s was an especially interesting application of the "lesser of two evils doctrine", since the United States ended up being deemed a lesser threat by the Maoists than was the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong argued at that time that it would be impossible to continue to deal with the turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the after-effects of the Sino-Soviet Split, and a hostile stance towards the United States and its "imperialist aggression" all at the same time. These measures of rapprochement later expanded into full-blown cooperation between the United States and China, and the introduction of Chinese economic reform and Socialism with Chinese characteristics that decisively introduced many elements of capitalism into the Chinese political system. But at its origin, the act was meant as an ostensibly temporary tactic by which Mao's China hoped to gain a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, with the United States thus being viewed as the "lesser of two evils".
Conflicts over the nature of various dictatorial regimes began to intensify when the Soviet Union, Cuba, and the People's Republic of China began to support communist revolutions and populist guerrilla warfare against established regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In many cases these movements succeeded (see Vietnam War for one of the major examples) and replaced an American-allied right-wing dictator with a leftist communist leader; to counter the trend, particularly in Latin and South America, the United States would often use its intelligence services to help orchestrate coups that would overthrow those regimes and reverse the leftist and/or communist trend (see Operation Condor and 1973 Chilean coup d'état).
In Iraq, the United States supervised Saddam Hussein's rise to power to counter the threatening growth and influence of the Iraqi Communist Party, which by the late 1950s was on the verge of taking state power. In 1963, the Kennedy administration backed a coup against Abdul-Karim Qassem who had deposed the Western-allied Iraqi monarchy, and then the Central Intelligence Agency both covertly and overtly helped the new Ba'ath Party government of Abdul Salam Arif in ridding the country of suspected leftists and communists. Though many in the US Government at that time recognized Saddam as a dictator or a potential dictator, they viewed him as the "lesser evil" when compared with the damage the Iraqi Communist Party might do with its planned nationalization measures and other reform programs that would probably have run counter to U.S. interests. Similarly, in 1991, when Shi'a across Iraq revolted against Hussein's regime (partially in response to the televised rallying call to do so by U.S. President George H. W. Bush), the U.S. justification for ultimately staying out of the revolt and allowing Hussein's security forces to suppress the rebels was that the U.S. had strategically decided Hussein's rule was better than the risk of a mujahideen- or Iranian Revolution-style takeover.
Probably the best example of this principle in action, however, was the political struggle behind the Vietnam War. Ngo Dinh Diem was the ruler of South Vietnam during the initial stages of the war, and though his regime was brutal and he was dictatorial, he was also an anti-communist who was determined to fight the expansion of the North—something that the United States government found sufficiently attractive and ultimately supported him. Ho Chi Minh ruled North Vietnam, was backed by the Soviets, and was a Marxist who wanted to see a united, Communist Vietnam. The United States thus supported Diem's regime, as well as his successor's, during the war and believed that he was the "lesser of two evils". Diem was later assassinated, and the United States oversaw a new South Vietnamese administration that was relatively less repressive.
It is widely speculated that because of this principle being placed in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded it in 1979, the jihadists the U.S. had supported were able to stay in power using American weapons, and, eventually, carry out the September 11 attacks.
The lesser of two evils is also referred to as a "necessary evil". In 2012, Huffington Post columnist Sanford Jay Rosen argued that the idea became a common practice for left-leaning voters in the United States due to their overwhelming disapproval of the US government's support for the Vietnam War. Rosen stated that: "Beginning with the 1968 presidential election, I often have heard from liberals that they could not vote for the lesser of two evils. Some said they would not vote; some said they would vote for a third party candidate. That mantra delivered us to Richard Nixon in 1972 until Watergate did him in. And it delivered us to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2000 until they were termed out in 2009." Opponents of the modern usage of these terms in reference to electoral politics include revolutionaries who oppose the existing system as a whole, as well as political moderates who advocate that third parties be given greater exposure in that system. For a particular voter in an election with more than two candidates, if the voter believes the most preferred candidate cannot win, the voter may be tempted to vote for the most favored viable candidate as a necessary evil or the lesser of two evils.
Supporters of lesser-evil tactics in the United States often cite United States politician Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns as examples of what can happen when a third-party candidate receives a significant number of votes. They claim that the mere existence of the third-party candidate essentially steals votes ("tilts" or "tips the scales") from the more progressive of the two main candidates and puts the election in favor of the "worse" candidate—because the small percentage that goes towards the third party candidate is a part "wasted" that could have instead gone to the lesser-evil candidate. For example, in 2000 as the Green Party candidate, Nader garnered 2.7% of the popular vote and, as a result, is considered by some U.S. Democrats to have tipped the election to George W. Bush. One counterargument is that Nader's candidacy likely increased turnout among liberals and that Al Gore took four of the five states—and thirty of the fifty-five electoral college votes—in which the outcome was decided by less than one percent of the vote. Others argue that supporters of Nader and other non-corporate candidates draw from voters who would not vote for either Democrats or Republicans.
In elections between only two candidates where one is mildly unpopular and the other immensely unpopular, opponents of both candidates frequently advocate a vote for the mildly unpopular candidate. For example, in the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, graffiti in Paris told people to "vote for the crook, not the fascist". The "crook" in those scribbled public messages was Jacques Chirac of Rally for the Republic, and the "fascist" was Jean-Marie le Pen of the Front National. Jacques Chirac eventually won the second round having garnered 82% of the vote.
In game theory this scenario is commonly known as the no-win situation, and as such refers to the necessarily unavoidable decision between one outcome or the other; as well as the losses of whatsoever value therein.
Between Scylla and Charybdis Odysseus chose to go near Skylla as the lesser of two evils. He lost six of his companions but if he had gone near Charybdis all would be doomed.
Two wrongs make a right
1. Stanford Jay Rosen (2012-09-25). "Don't Get Fooled Again: Why Liberals and Progressives Should Vote Enthusiastically for President Obama". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2013-03-23.
2. "Chirac’s new challenge". The Economist. 2002-05-06. Retrieved 2011-04-15.