The expression, “With friends like you, who needs enemies?” is an apt summary of
a major problem for current US foreign policy. It has subtly pervaded the US
presidential election, but neither candidate is willing to confront this
Here’s the issue: A number of supposed allies of the United
States don’t act as friends. In fact, they are major headaches, often subverting
US goals and interests. But to avoid conflict and, for Obama, to look successful
to the domestic audience, Washington pretends that everything is
Consider, for example, Pakistan.
The US has given billions
of dollars to that country in exchange for supposedly helping keeping the lid on
Afghanistan – and especially to ensure the Taliban does not return to power –
and to fight terrorism, especially al-Qaida.
In reality, Pakistan
supports the Taliban, wages a terrorist war on India, and hasn’t been all that
helpful in fighting al-Qaida. It would be interesting to see the US intelligence
document evaluating how high up in Pakistan’s government was the knowledge that
Osama bin Laden was “hiding out” a few blocks from a Pakistani military complex.
The fact that Pakistan threw into prison a local doctor whose work helped find
bin Laden indicates which side that regime is on.
regime is ferociously oppressing the Christian minority, becoming more Islamist,
and giving women the usual treatment existing in such societies. Obama claims to
be protecting women and religious minorities yet lifts not a finger in Pakistan.
And rather than be a force against terrorism, the Pakistani government has been
sponsoring a terrorist war against India.
After the horrible massacre of
civilians in Mumbai, it became clear that the attack was sponsored and planned
by Pakistan using terrorists trained and enjoying safe haven in Pakistan. India
was left helpless as Pakistan simply refused to cooperate with the investigation
or to turn over terrorists from the group responsible. In short, the United
States is massively subsidizing a major sponsor of international
Yet for the US government to admit that the Pakistani
government is more enemy than friend would make it even more uncooperative and
might lead to attacks on the US embassy and diplomats. Pretending that a regime
like Pakistan’ s is helpful – and continuing to fork over US taxpayer money to
it – is a huge temptation. Only if the regime in question does something
obviously horrible – and even the bin Laden case wasn’t sufficient to sour the
White House on Pakistan – will the situation change.
Of course, some
measures have been taken but basically Pakistan isn’t paying for its behavior.
Consequently, it will continue acting in a hostile way, subsidized by the United
The scope of this problem becomes clear if you add to this list
such places as Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority,
Turkey, Venezuela, Bolivia and several other countries in a similar
Take Egypt, for example. The country is now governed by a
radical, anti-American, anti-Semitic government dedicated to spreading jihad,
imposing Shari’a law and driving US influence from the region. It could be
argued that a mix of carrots and sticks from the United States would moderate
the regime’s behavior. But what if that doesn’t work? The temptation is to
continue with the carrots and forget about the sticks.
Obama says that
the “red lines” are that the Cairo regime must adhere to the peace treaty with
Israel; treat women and religious minorities (that is, Christians) well; and
help fight terrorism. But what if it doesn’t? Suppose the Salafist burn down
churches and massacre Christians and the government does not protect the
minority? Suppose a Shari’a regime reduces women’s rights to a minimum? Suppose
Egypt declares itself no longer bound by the peace treaty with Israel or pretty
openly arms Hamas in the Gaza Strip for an attack on Israel? Will Obama be
prepared for a conflict, even a confrontation, with the Arabic-speaking world’s
largest country? Would even a President Mitt Romney do so? In other words, the
argument would be made that it is better to keep giving money, selling weapons
and shutting up about criticism than to make a break.
Moreover, the president
who did make a change could be accused of getting the United States into an
unnecessary battle and making more enemies. To some extent, that’s what
happened with president George W. Bush.
The possible difference between
the two current candidates could end up looking like this: Obama version:
Although you act as enemies we will believe you are friends. Romney
version: We know you aren’t really friends but we don’t have a choice.
practice, the difference would be that Romney would have a lower threshold for
acting against betrayal than would Obama.
Of course, a large part of the
problem with Obama’s policy is that he not only treated enemies as friends and
did not pressure supposed friends that acted like enemies, he joined them. Thus,
Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are arming anti-American Islamist forces in
Syria with US intelligence officers supervising the action.
restriction is that the guns don’t go to groups affiliated with al-Qaida.
Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how extremist they are. In Libya, one of the groups
treated as “good guys”– supplied with guns by the United States during the civil
war there – went on to kill the US ambassador.
Yet given the current
situation, especially in the Middle East, a realistic policy would make the
enemies’ list seem too long and discouraging.
In political and diplomatic
terms that means the truth will be covered up. The important question is: How
far does a country have to go, how futile and even counterproductive do the
pay-offs have to be, before it is no longer treated as a friend?
The writer is
director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center,
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and editor of The Middle East Review of
International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab
Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for
Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria
(Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center is at www.gloria-center.org.