Beginning in the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin stole the land of Ukrainian farmers and tried to force them to live on collectives. When they refused, he lined them up by the thousands and had them machine-gunned. Consequently, fields were left unplanted, the next harvest never arrived, and millions of Ukrainians faced starvation. To punish his Ukrainian foes, Stalin let the famine take its toll. He offered no condolences, let alone relief, and by the mid-1930s, 7 million had starved to death.

Then Stalin turned his attention to those in his government whom he suspected (wrongly) were plotting against him. Ranking members of the foreign affairs department, nearly all the diplomatic corps, and 70 percent of his political party leadership—among others—were killed or simply vanished.

On the heels of such acts of despotism, the United States began "lending" military equipment to the Soviet Union. At the time, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "This decision is the end of any attempt at appeasement in our land; the end of urging us to get along with dictators; the end of compromise with tyranny and the forces of oppression." The "forces of oppression"? Nazi Germany.

The alliance with Russia was uncomfortable at best. But the judgment of history is clear: The Soviet Union's defeat of Germany on the eastern front was key to Hitler's downfall. And America's giving of $11 billion in Lend-Lease military aid was vital to Russian victory.

All this to say: Sometimes securing liberty for some (like those enduring Nazi occupation) means temporarily overlooking the oppression of others (like those suffering Soviet oppression). This is not an easy truth to stare at, but one we must contemplate at this hour.

Unsavory Allies

In the cause of fighting terrorism, the Bush administration has recently cut deals with Pakistan, China, Turkmenistan, and Sudan—some of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Take Sudan. The government ignores the thriving slave trade within its borders. It targets Christians for brutal persecution. It has harbored terrorists. It has also been under U.N. sanctions for five years for its human-rights abuses.

When the Bush administration made overtures to Sudan recently, offering support for sanction relief in exchange for help in the war against terrorism, human-rights advocates balked. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom worried that "in forging alliances against terrorism, the United States [would] compromise its commitment to human rights—including religious freedom—and democracy. We oppose policy tradeoffs."

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Such concerns are understandable but shortsighted. They are grounded in an unconscious idealism that adheres to a dictum of Lord Shaftesbury, the 19th-century British politician and devout evangelical: "What is morally wrong can never be politically right." This is a nice enough sentiment. But it is not an effective way to protect and promote human rights.

If politics is the art of compromise, international relations is the art of getting along with thugs. Is this because pragmatism trumps all prophetic concerns? No. Because our prophetic calling—to seek real liberty for the oppressed—is sometimes best advanced by dealing with unsavory oppressive states. Our nation's history, in fact, started with such a deal.

Our alliance with France won us the Revolutionary War. But the France we allied with was a corrupt and oppressive monarchy, so despotic that its people rose up against it just a few years after our War for Independence. In the meantime, we were not too self-righteous to fight for liberty and justice shoulder to shoulder with those who represented a nation that stole from its poor and suppressed dissent.

And on it goes, all through history, even back to biblical times. According to Isaiah, what is one of the most detestable national sins? Idolatry. But whom does God anoint to return the people of Israel to their land? An idolater named Cyrus.

Why does God, the hater of idolatry, do this? As Psalm 103 puts it, "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." We normally take this to apply to individuals. But the long and tired history of oppression and injustice shows that God is also patient with nation-states. Should not we be so forbearing, especially when our patience with one rogue state will gain the rights and lives of many more people elsewhere?

Then again, God's patience is not everlasting. The same Psalm that celebrates God's mercy also says, "The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed." There is a Day of Judgment that nations will face, a day that sometimes occurs in history.

Thus, our diplomats who must shake hands with contemptible people should not pretend the despots are not contemptible. They don't have to refrain from telling oppressors—publicly when diplomatically appropriate, and privately when not—to forsake their human-rights abuses.

How do we make sure that our alliances with thugs remain temporary? Christians, among other human-rights advocates, should regularly remind the administration about whom it is dealing with. The recent International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department does just that. But we should not oppose the administration when it shakes hands with thugs today. And when this chapter of the war on terrorism is over, we should strongly lobby our government to make another repressive state tomorrow's target in the fight for liberty and justice for all.

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Related Elsewhere:

Also appearing on our site today:

Opinion Roundup: Naming Names | Were the State Department's actions on international religious freedom compromised by the war on terrorism? (Nov. 7, 2001)

The State Department's International Religious Freedom Report is available in full online.

In early October, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged President Bush to continue to defend human rights and religious freedom.

Other related Christianity Today articles include:

What Does 09.11.01 Mean for Religious Persecution Policy? | Persecution watchdogs fear religious freedom will suffer. (Oct. 10, 2001)

Religious Liberty: How Are We Doing? | The challenges of being an international cop for human rights—a report by the first U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom. (Oct. 10, 2001)