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The Bizarre Need To Take Sides

Leslie Gelb proposes a bad response to current conflicts in Syria and Iraq:

There’s only one strategy with a decent chance of winning: forge a military and political coalition with the power to stifle the jihadis in both Iraq and Syria. This means partnering with Iran, Russia, and President Assad of Syria.

Gelb asks people to “hear him out” before attacking his proposal, but even after reading his entire argument it is still neither feasible nor desirable. It’s true that the U.S. has cooperated with unsavory and ugly regimes in the past, and it continues to do so today. The U.S. needs to be doing much less of that than it already does, so there’s not much reason to think that it needs to do even more. Cooperation of this sort may be a necessity under certain circumstances, but the “coalition” Gelb recommends isn’t necessary. That is, U.S. and allied security doesn’t require it, so Washington shouldn’t be prepared to entertain this idea. It’s also strange to think that this would work given existing U.S. relationships with these countries and American relationships with their regional rivals.

One of the main flaws in all of this is the preoccupation with picking one side or another when there is no U.S. or allied interest served in actively taking any side. The U.S. should want better relations with Russia and Iran for other reasons, but the U.S. shouldn’t be interested in siding with them in these ongoing conflicts. If it made no sense for the U.S. to align itself with their enemies in Syria, and it certainly didn’t, it also doesn’t make sense to support them or coordinate with them. Just as it is folly to embrace any group just because it is hostile to regimes in Syria or Iran, it is a lousy idea to join a “coalition” with these regimes just because they also oppose jihadist groups. I said the other day that demands to aid and support Maliki would lead the U.S. into pursuing our own version of Iran’s policy in Syria. Gelb has just taken this to its logical conclusion by arguing in favor of siding with Iran as it pursues its policies in Syria and Iraq. Aside from being wrong on the merits, Gelb has to know that this is a political non-starter in the U.S.

Gelb also makes the mistake of thinking that the U.S. would be in a position to direct what the other members of the “coalition” do. He talks about “easing” Assad out of power in the future, but that takes for granted that the other members of the “coalition” agree to that. That hasn’t been true in the last three years, so why does Gelb think the U.S. could achieve it in the future? He also fails to consider the negative consequences such an arrangement would have for U.S. and allied security in the long term. It is bad enough that the U.S. supports the authoritarian regimes that it has as clients, but adding some of the most hated governments in the world to that list can only make Americans overseas more of a target than they already are.

For that matter, I have a hard time believing that Gelb really supports doing this. Just a few months ago, Gelb was berating Obama for ruling out military action in Ukraine, and now he wants the U.S. to link arms with Russia over Syria and Iraq? One doesn’t have to expect perfect consistency in foreign policy arguments to recognize that these are two diametrically opposed views of how the U.S. should be dealing with Russia at the present time, and they’re coming from the same author. He has gone from fretting about lost “credibility” in March to recommending a course of action that makes a mockery of his previous concerns. Furthermore, he describes this proposal as a “winning strategy,” but neglects to mention that it would involve putting the U.S. on the side of three governments that are widely hated throughout the region. Whatever the U.S. might “win” in the short term would end up costing the U.S. more in frayed relationships with other regional governments and even greater popular hostility. Even if the U.S. “won” something, it would do so at an unacceptable cost.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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