If the United States were the kind of cold-blooded, realpolitik-practicing, 19th-century power so lovingly described by Henry Kissinger in his excellent histories, then the U.S. government might extract some cynical advantage from the situation. “Okay Mr. Ayatollah, we’ll save your bacon—pardon the expression—in Syria and Iraq. But we want something in return…”
For better or worse, however, the United States is not such a power. It is a moralistic democracy, accountable to voters who remember 35 years of Iranian terror attacks on Americans around the world. Alliance with an unreformed Iran is deeply embarrassing. The president has covered this embarrassment with the tried-and-true politicians’ method of refusing to acknowledge the blazingly obvious. The policy in Syria and Iraq is to bomb to smithereens the deadliest enemies of Bashar al-Assad and the mullahs of Iran—while insisting that the U.S. has no intention of helping Assad or the mullahs. Viscount Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, offered this explanation of cabinet government: “It doesn’t matter what damn lie we tell, so long as we all tell the same damn lie.” Helpful advice then, helpful advice now.
The trouble with the policy of aid-Iran-but-don’t-admit-it is that the United States receives nothing in return—and specifically, no abatement of the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration may hope that by acting as Iran’s air force today, the United States may somehow gain Iranian goodwill tomorrow. Instead, the bizarre real-world effect of the administration's deny-the-obvious messaging is to empower the Iranians to act as if they were doing the United States a favor by allowing the United States to whomp their enemies for them.
This summer, Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that his greatest foreign-policy regret was not following up on his Libya intervention to ensure a stable transition to a new government. As admissions go, this one was a flabbergaster. Over four years, first in the U.S. Senate, then as a candidate for president, Barack Obama powerfully upbraided the Bush administration for the defects of its plan to stabilize Iraq after overthrowing Saddam. If he hit that point once, he hit that point a thousand times. Yet when it became his turn to overthrow a dictatorial regime, he dismissed his own top critique of his predecessor. He went to war in Libya without any clear idea of what was to come after, or how that was to be achieved. But more incredibly yet, Obama is now preparing another intervention—this one vastly more important—in Syria and Iraq with no clearer idea of what he hopes to achieve than he had in Libya.
Debates over foreign policy have a bad tendency to vaporize into abstract discussions of first principles: intervention or non-intervention? Responsibility to protect or mind our own business? Iraq and Syria today present a case that makes nonsense of abstractions. Intervene? The United States and its allies should intervene when intervention will advance U.S. and allied interests, consistent with U.S. and allied values. But where do we find the U.S. and allied interest in a war between al-Qaeda’s even nastier younger brother, on one side, and the mullahs of Iran on the other? If Iran were saying, “Please help us, and we’ll reorient our policy in a friendlier direction,” that would be one thing. They are not saying that. They are not doing that. They are doing the opposite.