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The Bizarre Need To Take Sides

Leslie Gelb proposes [1] 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 [2] 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.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "The Bizarre Need To Take Sides"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On June 23, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

Marooned this Sunday, I watched more than my share of political chat shows. Watching them back to back, I saw a succession of “experts” whose common belief was that “we” had the duty and the power to manage a part of the world in which we have been screwing up at least since 1954 (the anti-Mossadegh coup) if not 1947 (the partition of mandatory Palestince).

The sense of entitlement, combined with the vacuity of the analyses, was sickening.

Later I did watch Col. Bacevich on Bill Moyers. The man has a grace and good sense about him that the natterers sorely lacked. An officer and a gentleman, alas, a vanishing breed. Make him National Security Adviser.

#2 Comment By Richard W. Bray On June 23, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

Gelb’s Wacky New Grand Strategery is certainly amusing in light of his past pronouncements.

But attempting to “ease Assad out” of power is a much more sane and laudable approach than trying to bomb him out of power. So perhaps Mr. Gelb is capable of some type of moral and intellectual growth after all.

#3 Comment By philadlephialawyer On June 23, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

“He [Gelb] talks about ‘easing’ Assad out of power in the future…”

In other words, since aligning with Assad’s enemies didn’t work in getting rid of him, we should align with him and his friends to get rid of him! That makes sense, right?

Please come be our ally, Mr. Assad, forget about all that stuff we said about you, all the accusations, the threats, the lies, the insinuations, the ultimata and pronunciamundos and so on and so forth, forget about the “covert” (not sure who it is a secret from) aid we have been giving the rebels in your country, forget about all the noise our witch/harpies and “human rights” professional busy bodies and US State government paid “non governmental” (sic) organizations have been making about how horrid your rule is (the worse since Rwanda, says AM Slaughter), forget the “red line,” forget the “brutal dictator who is murdering his own people,” forget our claims that more people have been killed in this struggle (all of whose deaths are your fault, and yours alone, personally) than actually live in the country, and so on. Let bygones be bygones, and be our friend now, and let all of your friends (Iran, Russia, etc) now be our friends too (although we have heretofore been treating them as enemies too). With I suppose, an unstated notion that all of our old friends (the Israelis, the Saudis) are, at least on this matter, no longer our friends.

Oh, just one thing, we want to ease you out of power anyway.

Why wouldn’t he go along with that!?!

#4 Comment By Jack Ross On June 23, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

Provided that the United States has the wisdom to stay in the background as an offshore balancer (a big if to be sure), letting Russia, Iran and its Shi’ite allies take the lead in containing ISIS – and letting Russia, Iran, India, and Japan contain China and Pakistan sounds pretty good to me.

#5 Comment By HyperIon On June 23, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

Gelb is as clueless (and as blameworthy even though he didn’t serve in the GWB admin)as Wolfie, and Condi, Cheney, etc.

I don’t understand why he isn’t excoriated as frequently.

And Grumpy, yes, Bacevich is smart, reasonable, direct but tactful. And too clever to serve in the government again IMO. I wish he would but he can accurately claim to have been there and done that. He’s one of the few ex-military that I trust.

#6 Comment By Sombrero On June 23, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

The real intention here is to keep us bogged down in the ME, standing between various hostile parties.

To hell with that. We’ve done enough of it.

#7 Comment By John On June 23, 2014 @ 6:29 pm

This is from Gelb’s article and know that reading it seriously can cause actual brain damage:

A federal or decentralized power system is the only means to get the non-jihadi warring parties to live in peace with one another. In a federal system, the minority Syrian Alawites (who belong to a branch of Shiism) can protect themselves against the majority of Syrian Sunnis; and in Iraq, the minority Sunnis can have a wall against the majority Shiites. This approach was universally rejected when I first proposed it ten years ago in a New York Times op-ed, and then subsequently with then-Senator Joe Biden. Now, it’s pretty clear that if anything could avoid partition in both countries and thus perpetual warfare, it would be a federal division of power.

“We don’t trust you and are prepared to die trying to kill you, rather than live under a democratic government where you hold a majority of the seats in the legislature. But if you’re willing to switch to a federal power system, that could all change.” — Hypothetical Sunn’i warlord that lives only in Leslie Gelb’s mind.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 23, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

If there is to be support for unsavory regimes, then the sought-after end can’t be any higher moral purpose whatsoever. It must be in pursuit of aims congenial with the methods. In other words, the old immoral geopolitical struggle for power and money, in the interests of a relatively few exploiters. This time around, with globalism and the rise of multinational corporations with their leaders’ outsized compensation, dwarfing that of any democratic national political leader, it’s clear who runs the world. The interests of oligarchs no longer even coincide with any particular nation’s fortunes, except in the sense that nation’s leadership does what corporate bids them, for their own personal benefit – but not those of their peoples – not even America’s.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 23, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

First the issue of unsavory characters: to some extent that isn’t really our issue aside from contending that they should do this or that. We didn’t make war on South Africa and there is no doubt that their entire system was unsavory from top down. Whether Pres. Hussein was unsavory is really a question of who of the former Iraqis in US was chattering about his downfall for their own purposes. In much the same way there is chatter about ISIS a relatively unknown entity in the equation. What we have today is a lot of well poisoning effective in making the water taste bad when in fact there’s nothing wrong with the water at all, since taste is a subjective matter. We still have a leadership and a press unwilling to say, I don’t know. I have no idea. It is unclear. And because it is choosing a side, invading a country is out of the question. I would apply the same to our actions if Afghanistan, we didn’t know, who what and where — consequence indict everyone – thereby creating a self fulfilling prophecy and democrats were no less culpable than republicans. One lone Congresswoman voted against the invasion and made her reasons clear — especially as to government over reach – here in the US. Unbeknownst her she was a prophet. I hope she has some sense of vindication a she listens to “Tea Party” members railing against over reach. One made possible by the policies attached to invading Afghanistan, which pre Tea Partiers were all for. That is the hypocritical denial that haunts Tea Party members. They got their tea at the expense of throwing many people overboard, including conservatives who said — there is no case for war. The Taliban and Al Queda are not the same. And now they don’t like the way it tastes. When they were warned about the consequences, they manufactured issues handed their fellows over to liberals to do with as they saw fit — and it is very hard to be sympathetic as they catterwaller, foul.

These are not the days of the cold war in which our so called ‘bad actors’ were supposedly necessary evils. However, if we are going to recognize the autonomous existence of other nation states they may not have a similar ethic or practice. And may very well and should either be content in not doing business with or advocating for something different without destabilizing regions. It is wholly irresponsible. And as current times remind us unwieldly, unless we choose to risk intervention — and that means intervention that is in some circumstances complete, not merely handing over power to someone we think we might like.

Our behavior as to Egypt was utter child’s play and the results embarrassing. Yet, Sec Clinton continued to pander for more and more games of this nature, as if using power for its own sake was the role of the post.

Worse than being a target is the rather fear stage diplomacy. We had better not do this with them l’est their opponents act out against us. Policy out of fear is not better than policy our of ignorance and unabashed power usage. And that concerns me among non-interventionist corners. Not acting because we might get hurt and get it wrong.

There are times when we must act, some manner blanket policy rooted in who might get mad us for doing so is always part of that equation.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 23, 2014 @ 7:23 pm

Second, I think when we are talking about long term strategic goals and environments for change — stability always the better call. And we do not have dump ethical and honest dealings to do so.

But we will have to be honest enough to say, “We will not overthrow governments on your behalf.” We can and will advocate for change — but change is a long and hard road sometimes. Our own people’s have yet to reap full benefits as citizens – blacks and native americans.


No democracy has been born a democracy. It has morphed or broken from authoritarian systems. And instead of teaching how glorious our own revolution – completely unnecessary as it was. We had better first make sure students understand that had it not been for a monarchy or the authoritarian paliamentary system in play on the continent the US would most likely be The US of Spain, The US of France, The US of Great Britain. That you don’t get democracy in the US until after the civil war and it was forced — and it was not forced to include people, but for reasons of national unity.

#11 Comment By Myron Hudson On June 23, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

“… a decent chance of winning…” I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one. What the heck is winning?

#12 Comment By Slingerland 60 On June 23, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

Who is supposed to pay for this farcical “Dream Team”? The American taxpayer? Doesn’t Gelb even read the newspapers he writes for? We’re broke! We can’t afford any more of this nonsense!

#13 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 23, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

This is great article, and needed, because actually, I’ve seen quite a few commenters on threads on the TAC and National Interest and elsewhere proposing exactly this strategy as a brilliant new way to stick it to the Neo-Cons. Too many opponents of America’s current policy think the mirror image of a failure is a success. It isn’t, it’s just a different kind of failure.

I would also add, that of all the governments in the Arab world, about the only ones I’d want to be “seen in public with” are Morocco and Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan in particular is one of the most sensible voices in the region. If we’d paid more attention over the last thirty years we’d have been better off. We wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, would have had fantasies about regime change, but would be pushing Israel harder on peace with the Palestinians. But on the other hand, we wouldn’t be shacking up with Iran or Assad.

#14 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 23, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

“WOULDN’T” have had fantasies about regime change

#15 Comment By Chris Atwood On June 23, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

And I hope Rand Paul is listening, because this idea of joining a Russia-Assad-Iran to defend Christianity in the Middle East is all too seductive to a certain brand of anti-Neo-Conservative, Christian-conservative libertarian. If he doesn’t make his staff read this column and tell them “this is my view–speak according to it or find a new senator to work for,” he’ll come to regret it, I think.