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The lesser of two evils principle, also known simply as the lesser evil, is the idea that of two bad choices, one isn't as bad as the other, and should be chosen over the one that is a greater threat.

Original uses

Originally, "lesser evil" was a Cold War-era pragmatic foreign policy principle used by the United Statesmarker and, to a lesser extent, several other countries. The principle dealt with the United States's attitude regarding how third-world dictators should be handled, and was closely related to the Kirkpatrick Doctrine of Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The Government of the United States had long stated that democracy was one of the cornerstones of U.S. society, and therefore also that support for democracy should 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 US 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.

Conflicts over dictatorships began to occur when the Soviet Unionmarker, Cubamarker, and the People's Republic of Chinamarker began to support communist revolutions and populist guerrilla warfare against established regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Latin America. In many cases these movements succeeded (see Vietnam War) and replaced an American-allied dictator with a pro-Soviet dictator; to counter the trend, the United States would often use its intelligence services to help orchestrate coups d'état that would overthrow regimes not allied to the United States.

One example is Iraq. The United Statesmarker 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 Baath 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, the U.S. justification for staying out of the revolt and allowing his security forces to suppress the rebels was that Hussein's rule was better than the risk of a jihadist or Iranian Revolution-style takeover.

Probably the best example of this principle in action 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, he was also an anti-communist who was determined to fight the expansions of the North. Ho Chi Minh was meanwhile the ruler of North Vietnam, backed by the Soviets, and a Marxist who wanted to see a united, communist Vietnam. The United States thus supported the regime of Diem and his successors during the war, believing that he was the "lesser of two evils."

Modern usage in American politics

The lesser of two evils principle is today most commonly used in reference to electoral politics, particularly in Western nations, and perhaps in the United Statesmarker more than anywhere else. When popular opinion in the United States is confronted with what is often seen as two main candidates — normally Democrat and Republican in the modern era — that are substantially similar ideologically, politically, and/or in their economic programme, a voter is often advised to choose the "lesser of two evils" to avoid having the supposedly "greater evil" get into office and wreak havoc on society. Opponents of this line of thinking include revolutionaries who oppose the system as a whole, and political moderates advocating 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 the lesser of two evils.

Supporters of lesser-evil tactics often cite United Statesmarker politician Ralph Nader's presidential campaign as an example of what can happen when the third-party candidate is still voted for. In 2000 as the United States Green Party candidate, he garnered 2.7% of the popular vote and, as a result, is considered by many 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.

Other applications of the term

Many other countries, including the Soviet Unionmarker, also had their own "lesser of two evils" policy. Earlier, during World War II, the Western Allies justified their support for 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, the Sovietsmarker and other leading communists justified their anti-fascist united front under an essentially "lesser of two evils" policy, arguing that allying with capitalist powers to overthrow fascism would be better than having the latter successfully occupy the world and permanently consolidate power.

The decision of the leadership of the People's Republic of Chinamarker 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 Statesmarker ended up being deemed a lesser threat than the Soviet Unionmarker. Mao Zedong argued at that time that it would be impossible to continue to deal with the tumult 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 reproach later expanded into full-blown cooperation between the United States and China, and the introduction of Chinese economic reform and Socialism with Chinese characteristics in the latter. But at its origin, the act was meant as an ostensibly temporary tactic by which China hoped to gain a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, with the United States thus being viewed as the "lesser of two evils."

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