Blowback: In Aiding Iranian Terrorists, the U.S. Repeats a Dangerous Mistake

A New Yorker article reports that U.S. special forces funded and trained a group called MEK, extending a long history of short-sighted, enemy-of-my-enemy foreign policy.

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Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell speaks to a pro-MEK crowd in front of the White House. AP

American foreign policy can get complicated. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein because he was the greatest enemy of our enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. He's dead now because the U.S. invaded his country in 2003, a war heavily premised on claims that he was supporting terrorism, namely al-Qaeda. He wasn't supporting al-Qaeda. But he did support another terrorist group, called Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK. Now many leading American officials want the U.S. to support MEK because they are an enemy of Iran. According to a new New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration gave MEK money, guns, and even training at a Nevada base starting in 2005.

In other words, if Hersh's story is true, then the U.S. supported the terrorist ally of its enemy, whom we killed in part because we thought he supported some other terrorists that he actually didn't, because those terrorists are the enemy of our other enemy. Got it?

Even if Hersh is wrong, there is a long list of U.S. leaders and officials who would like to make him right. Members of the "MEK lobby," as it's often called, support at least removing the group from the list of officially designated terrorist groups, and often some combination of arming or funding the fighters. They include: two former CIA directors, a former FBI director, a former attorney general, Bush's first homeland security chief, Obama's first national security adviser, Rudy Giuliani, and Howard Dean. A House resolution calling for MEK to be de-listed as a terrorist group has 97 co-sponsors.

It's not a coincidence that the pro-MEK position can seem confusing, even contradictory. The world is too complicated and interconnected for "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to work as a foreign policy mandate. It leads the U.S. to work against its own long-term interests, "solving" short-term problems by creating bigger, longer-term problems. For example: supporting Arab dictators to suppress the Arab Islamist parties that may soon take over, supporting Latin American rightist who ended up being murderous dictators, supporting anti-Soviet fighters who later turned against us, and so on. Sometimes, the U.S. even supports enemies-of-our-enemies who are actively and currently also our enemy: Afghan drug ring leader Ahmed Wali Karzai, for example, or, starting in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Still, let's assume, for the purposes of discussion, that American MEK enthusiasts are right in arguing that the radical Marxist group, which assassinated six Americans in the 1970s, has since become, and always will be, as American as apple pie. Supporting this terrorist group is still likely to do far more harm than good.

The U.S. has a long history of arming rebels, insurgents, and outright terrorists who want to fight our enemies for us. Even when it works -- and it often doesn't -- the U.S.-sponsored fighters often spread small arms, exacerbate anti-American attitudes, and entrench a cycle of violence that can continues for years and sometimes spin out of control. When Congress shoveled millions of dollars into CIA programs to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, much of the guns and money by design went to the extremists. A December 1984 CIA memo identified "fundamentalists" such as Mujahideen leader (and current American enemy) Gulbidden Hekmatyar as "the best fighters" and thus best recipient of American backing. Even the Afghan extremists who didn't turn against the U.S. did use their arms and money to rampage across Afghanistan, sowing the chaos, violence, mistrust, corruption, crime, and poverty that has plagued the country for now 30 years.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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