Now is not the time for false virtue or moral absolutism. The working principle now has to be first threats first. And the first threat to American interests today is ISIS and its cohorts.
One doesn’t need to indulge in “moral absolutism” to be able to identify the serious flaws with what Gelb is proposing. Gelb wants the U.S. to team up with Syria and Iran to fight ISIS, but somehow thinks that the Syrian regime can be persuaded to behave less atrociously along the way. He says that “the first condition for cooperation must be [Assad’s] agreement to respect humanitarian zones in rebel held areas linked to a mutual ceasefire,” but this is preposterous on its face. No one could trust the Syrian regime to honor such a commitment, and once the U.S. has linked itself to the regime it will be stuck with its new ally no matter what it does. On the one hand, Gelb is saying that we must make a deal with the “devils we know” and set aside our qualms about the atrocious behavior of these would-be allies that he wants us to have, but he also thinks that by seeking the aid of the “devils” that they will be somehow be encouraged to behave less devilishly. It’s abhorrent, and it’s also unworkable on its own terms.
Gelb didn’t make a persuasive argument months ago before the U.S. was bombing ISIS, and he fails to persuade once again. As I’ve pointed out before, it is far from certain that the U.S. would be able to “get the job done” if it struck such an awful bargain, so the U.S. would be agreeing to a horrendous alliance of convenience with no guarantee that the alliance would even be useful. Actively cooperating with the Syrian regime would not only be a shameful thing to do, but in all likelihood it would give ISIS and other jihadist groups endless fodder for propaganda and recruiting, it would significantly increase the jihadist threat to Americans overseas, and it would blow apart whatever semblance of international support the anti-ISIS campaign currently has.
He notes that the U.S. has collaborated with ugly, brutal regimes in the past when it seemed necessary to do so, but this just reminds us how unnecessary the current campaign is for U.S. security. Supposing that Gelb is right that his is the “only way” to defeat ISIS, the price would be unacceptably high, and it would be yet another reason to stop the campaign now. As it is, I doubt that Gelb’s way would be any better at “getting the job done” than the current policy, and it seems likely to make the U.S. far more enemies in the process than we already have.