The American Legion Magazine | 9.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd

Wanting a fresh start and a partner free from the taint of corruption, President Barack Obama was quietly pulling for Hamid Karzai’s opponents in last year’s Afghan elections. “Karzai is not our man,” as one administration official put it.[i]

The feeling seems mutual, as Karzai misses the close personal relationship he enjoyed with the Bush administration. But Obama and Karzai have found a way to live with each other, recognizing that they share a common enemy: the Taliban.

In short, Obama is learning that working with the Karzais of the world is preferable to the alternative—fighting against them or fighting without them.

This practice of making common cause with flawed partners predates the post-9/11 campaign against terror. In fact, Americans entered into these uncomfortable marriages of convenience even before the birth of the Republic.

British Back-and-Forth

It pays to recall that Lt. Col. George Washington and American colonists fought alongside the British against the French during the French and Indian War—and then alongside the French against the British in the Revolutionary War.

Indeed, just over a decade after the colonists helped the British defeat the French, those same colonists were negotiating with the French to secure loans, military supplies, naval support and direct military intervention, which the French ultimately provided. France was willing to help because America’s ragtag revolutionaries were the enemies of France’s enemy.[ii]

Decades later, the United States got a lot of help from Britain in securing this hemisphere against European intervention, because British and American interests once again converged. When it appeared that an alliance of European empires would try to reassert control over newly independent countries in South America, as John Lewis Gaddis reminds us in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, the British “suggested a joint Anglo-American statement ruling out future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere.” The Monroe administration then turned “the British proposal into a unilateral pronouncement”—the Monroe Doctrine—calculating that the British navy would, in effect, enforce U.S. policy because both countries wanted to block European intervention in South America.[iii]

But that period of Anglo-American détente was temporary. By the 1890s, the Cleveland administration was threatening to go to war with Britain over boundary lines in Venezuela. Theodore Roosevelt, as historian Edmund Morris details in his twin TR biographies, openly contemplated a “war with Great Britain for the conquest of Canada.”[iv] During the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03, the U.S. was on the verge of a naval war with Britain and Germany. And in the decade that followed, the U.S. was in a global arms race with, among others, Britain.[v]

In fact, as late as 1942, as Niall Ferguson observes in Colossus, opinion polls revealed that 60 percent of Americans still regarded the British as “colonial oppressors.”[vi]

Uncle Joe and OBL

Public opinion notwithstanding, Churchill’s Britain was much more than just the enemy of our enemy during World War II. Britain was a true friend. The Anglo-American alliance was reflected in, and cemented by, the Atlantic Charter, a statement of shared values that would bind the two liberal democracies and guide their conduct of war and peace.

In a sign of their shared vision, when FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic to sign the charter in August 1941, they led their troops in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”

It’s impossible to imagine Stalin joining such a chorus. Stalin’s USSR was not America’s friend, but it was the quintessential enemy of our enemy. Gaddis points out that 60 Soviets died for every one American, noting how FDR aligned “America’s interests with the Red Army’s capabilities.”[vii]

Even so, Stalin was not our “Uncle Joe.” He was a brutal totalitarian dictator on par with Hitler. He did not share America’s values, only America’s objectives—namely, the defeat of another brutal totalitarian dictator. And so it was unwise, shortsighted and counterproductive to America’s postwar interests to confuse the situation by humanizing him or equating him with a close ally. America paid for this naïvetéin the early years of the Cold War.

In short, the “enemy of our enemy” is not necessarily our friend.

Grasping that and working with the enemies of our enemies to achieve concrete foreign policy ends is a challenge for an idealistic nation like ours. The American people are not particularly comfortable with realpolitik or the cold, calculating actions it demands. Yet throughout the Cold War, Washington employed a sometimes-ruthless and often-effective brand of realpolitik. As Robert Kaplan has observed, “Americans champion idealism while employing realists perhaps because we need to have a high opinion of ourselves while pursuing our own interests.” He cites Kissinger, Acheson, Marshall and Stimson—“realists all.”[viii]

In his history of the Cold War, Derek Leebaert reminds us that after World War II Washington quietly imported hundreds of German rocket scientists, “who would otherwise be…arrested for war crimes.”[ix] This special class of immigrants would be crucial to the nation’s security in an era shaped by jets, missiles and rockets.

More broadly, after forging an alliance with the Soviet Union to wage and win a world war against Germany and Japan, the United States forged alliances with Germany and Japan to wage and win a cold war against the Soviet Union.

Much later, when Iran and Iraq went to war—a fundamentalist theocracy that had humiliated America, and a Soviet client state that had trampled every notion of human rights—Washington recognized that two of its enemies were fighting and made the most of it. “In a feat of realpolitik that eclipsed even Kissinger’s in the 1970s,” writes Ferguson, “the United States ended up giving assistance to both sides.”[x]

Waging the Cold War—pursuing the greater good of containing Soviet communism—sometimes meant making common cause with unsavory regimes. We were the good guys, to be sure, but we worked with our share of bad guys. Just consider some of our thuggish friends who ruled South Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Chile, Nicaragua, Iran and Saudi Arabia during the Cold War.

The list goes on, and Americans sometimes paid for these moral mismatches. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. armed and funded mujahedeen fighters, who bled the Red Army white. One of those who fought on America’s side in that climactic Cold War battle was Osama bin Laden, who received CIA training.

The man who would go on to plan and perpetrate the bloodiest foreign attack on American soil understood well that a temporary partnership should never be mistaken for friendship.

Phony Wars, Phony Friends

In the war on terrorism, the United States continues to embrace “the enemy of my enemy” maxim, often choosing the lesser of two evils.

For example, before Karzai became Afghanistan’s president, the U.S. partnered with a ragtag collection of Afghan tribes and clans eager to remove the Taliban and expel its al-Qaeda partners. But in the ebb and flow of the war, some tribal chiefs have been exposed as duplicitous, corrupt or linked to opium production. Others simply quit fighting when it doesn’t suit them.

Frustrated by Karzai’s failure to rein in corruption, the Obama administration has pressured Karzai to make reforms. Karzai has resisted and even mused that he might “join the Taliban” if Washington pushes too hard, which would actually make him the friend of our enemy.[xi]

Pakistan was once exactly that. It pays to recall that Pakistan effectively spawned the Taliban in 1994-95 in a shortsighted attempt to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan. After 9/11, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf—with Washington holding the equivalent of a loaded gun to his head—promised to help remove the Taliban and fight al Qaeda. And for those promises he benefitted richly in aid and arms. Yet his words proved empty, and he waged what amounted to a phony war, ceding vast stretches of territory to America’s enemies, then claiming his government was too weak to control Pakistan’s territory, before finally invoking Pakistan’s sovereignty to block the U.S. from doing what he was unwilling to do.

The good news is that the post-Musharraf government seems genuinely committed to doing its part—and working with the United States rather than against it.

Speaking of working with the United States, the human-rights and democratic credentials of some of our Central Asian partners leave much to be desired. Witness the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, where government repression triggered a bloody opposition coup. Even so, Central Asia’s “Stans” serve as vital transit hubs for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the same way, the Yemeni government may be helpful in fighting al Qaeda—for now.

However, none of these countries are true friends of the United States. They are simply temporary partners, means to a greater end.   

When these marriages of convenience sour, backfire or simply no longer serve America’s larger interests, we need to have the nerve to cut our ties and find other partners, while preserving strong bonds with that small handful of nations that share both our interests and our values.

[i] Rajiv Chandraskaran, “Administration is keeping ally at arm’s length,” Washington Post, May 6, 2009.

[ii] U.S. State Department, “French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War 1754-1763,” http://www.state.gov/; U.S. State Department, “French Alliance, French Assistance and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution, 1778-1782,” http://www.state.gov/

[iii] John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise Security and the American Experience, pp.23-24. 

[iv] Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, p.532.

[v] Morris, Theodore Rex, pp.181, 184-185, 485.

[vi] Niall Ferguson, Colossus, p.67.

[vii] Gaddis, p.51

[viii] Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, p.152.

[ix] Derek Leebaert, The 50-Year Wound, pp.52-53. 

[x]Ferguson, p.118.

[xi] AP, “Karzai to lawmakers: ‘I might join the Taliban’,” April 5, 2010, http://www.msnbc.com/.