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Judicious Double Standards

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Back behind my high school one day, we all assembled to watch a fistfight. To my immense pleasure, a bully was being bested by his victim. Then the bully's friend stepped in and ended matters with a swift kick to the other guy's midsection. It was an unfair ending to what was supposed to be a fair fight, but it taught me a valuable lesson: You treat your friends differently than you do your enemies.

This elemental principle of life, love and other matters seems utterly lost on so many critics of George Bush's agreement to provide India with civilian nuclear technology. In doing so, we are told, he has done something truly awful -- established a double standard. Well, duh -- yes. India is our friend and Iran, just to pick an example, is not.

The cry of "double standard" is a bit silly. It asks us not to recognize certain realities -- the difference between friends and enemies, for instance, or good and bad democracies, to give another example. In the case of the nuclear agreement, we are somehow supposed to believe that by favoring India, Bush has made it much harder to put pressure on Iran to abandon its apparent weapons program and become a "good guy" nation. This overlooks the fact that Iran is governed by a zealot who has pledged to eradicate Israel and who firmly believes in the inherent evil of the United States of America. As Bush once said about himself, the Iranians do not do nuance.

Reality imposes its own rules -- and they have nothing to do with double standards. North Korea probably already has a nuclear weapon. Iran is going that way, and it is going to happen no matter what the United States and its allies do. For Iran, going nuclear has been a national goal ever since the shah headed the government. Now this is even more the case, especially since the United States, which lumped Iran along with Iraq into the "axis of evil," invaded Iraq. It would hardly be the height of paranoia for Iran to think it is next.

The invocation of the term "double standard" is often applied where Israel is concerned. Israel is presumed to have a nuclear arsenal. Why should the United States look the other way at Israel's bomb and go nuts over Iran's effort to get one? The answer ought to be clear: Because Israel has not threatened to blow Iran off the map; because it is vastly outnumbered in a tough, belligerent neighborhood; and because it is the lone real democracy in a region run mostly by thugs.

The same accusation of a double standard is made with regard to the effort to discriminate between election outcomes. We are supposed to treat the victory of Hamas in Palestine as we would that of the Labor Party in Britain. But the outcome of one democratic election is not threatening and the other is, and we ought to be able to say so -- and do something about it. If, for instance, we are supposed to continue aiding a Palestinian government that has now fallen into the hands of religious fanatics and proponents of a virulent brand of anti-Semitism, then we have lost our minds. It will not matter to some poor Israeli that the terrorist who kills him represented a democratically elected government.

The "double standard" accusation has a schoolyard quality to it. Why a boycott of Cuba and not of China? Because you can with one and not with the other. Why attack Saddam Hussein and not all the other vile dictators? Because you do what you can. Why not ask why you leave your estate to your kids and not strangers? Because your kids are your kids. It is the ultimate double standard.

It is true, of course, that Bush has upended 30 years of American nuclear policy -- and there will be consequences. Maybe, as some of the critics say, he has made it easier for India to increase its nuclear arsenal. But India will make all the weapons it feels it needs -- no matter what the United States does. America is a superpower, but not even a superpower is all-powerful.

The Israeli bomb threatens nobody. An Iranian bomb does. India has transferred its nuclear technology to no one. Pakistan has. No one worries about India or Israel making the technology available to terrorists. Everyone worries about Iran doing that. These are distinctions with great differences. They are, as critics charge, double standards, but to apply a single standard to both friend and enemy, while it might be fair, would be singularly stupid.

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