A Paradox of U.S. Middle East Policy: The Friend Who Acts like an Enemy is an Enemy
By Barry Rubin
The expression, “With friends like you who needs enemies?” is an apt summary of a major problem for U.S. foreign policy during Obama's second term.
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 U.S. goals and interests. But to avoid conflict and, for Obama, to look successful to the domestic audience, Washington pretends that everything is fine.
Consider, for example, Pakistan. The United States 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 U.S. intelligence document evaluating how high up in Pakistan’s government was their knowledge that Usama bin Ladin 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 Ladin indicates which side that regime is on.
Moreover, Pakistan’s 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 terrorism.
Yet for the U.S. 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 U.S. embassy and diplomats. Pretending that a regime like Pakistan's is helpful--and continuing to fork over U.S. taxpayer money to it--is a huge temptation. Only if the regime in question does something obviously horrible, and even the bin Ladin 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 States to do so.
The scope of this problem becomes clearly visible if you add to this list such places as Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Venezuela, Bolivia, and several other countries being in a similar situation.
Take Egypt for example. The country is now governed by a radical, anti-American, antisemitic government dedicated to spreading jihad, imposing Sharia law, and driving U.S. 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 Sharia 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 so 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.
In 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 U.S. intelligence officers supervising the weapons’ supplying. The only 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 U.S. 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.