Keep your frenemies list short and your enemies list shorter

September 5, 2014


Compiling an enemies list was a cinch for the United States during the Cold War, what with most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal targeted its way. Friends of the Soviets immediately became America’s enemies, and Soviet enemies became U.S. friends. That made China a U.S. enemy of the highest order, a ranking shared by the Soviet client-states of Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam, against which the United States fought. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya rose to high-enemy status under President Ronald Reagan, a position it maintained until he surrendered its nuclear program.

The enemy-allies partition had a few anomalies, notably the non-aligned nations and double-dealers like the Indians and the Romanians, who exploited frenemy relations with the United States. But it drove U.S. foreign policy for more than two generations until the Soviets sloughed off both communism and empire, laid down their ICBMs, and exited the enemy business. 

China’s reversal was more dramatic: It became the United States’ business partner in the 1990s and almost a friend. For most of the 1990s, the United States had no real rivals, a period of coasting that ended with 9/11 and its aftermath. Ever since, enemies-list has been a brain-bruising task for the U.S. government as such violent non-state actors as al Qaeda, Islamic State, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and many others have emerged, breaking — at the knuckles — the rules of thumb that once governed enemy identification.

Islamic State didn’t earn its certified U.S. enemy status until it attacked U.S. ally Iraq and issued a promise to destroy America. But the organization hadn’t gone ignored. The CIA has already trained 4,000 of its foes in the Free Syrian Army, which isn’t a friendly gesture. Complicating Islamic State’s enemy status is its recent threat to topple Russia, whose revived imperialism has put it back on the U.S. enemy list. So the enemy of the United States’ enemy is an enemy, too. The rules of thumb are so broken that the United States is cooperating with Iran, previously U.S. Enemy No. 1, to punish the Islamic State.

It’s almost enough to make you nostalgic for the certainty of the Cold War — although Russia’s recent adventures in Crimea and Ukraine have probably slaked everybody’s nostalgia by this point.

Of course, international relations have never been a simple matter of sorting other nations and groups into friends or enemies, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jonathan Schanzer noted recently in National Interest. Not all foes rise to the level of enemy, they write. Pure enemies are foes that must be destroyed. Other foes are mere adversaries, who need only be bested in the arena. Venezuela, hostile to the United States, but no real threat to its sovereignty, would seem to fall into the third category — adversary. Cuba, once a U.S. enemy by virtue of its relationship with the Soviets, can also lay claim to this designation. A fourth category, not explored by Gartenstein-Ross and Schanzer, would be antagonists — petulant countries in perpetual variance with the United States. I’m looking at you, France.

Gartenstein-Ross and Schanzer make their mark by identifying a fifth and broadening category: states that behave as allies, adversaries, and enemies at the same time, and are usually countries that have something to barter—military cooperation or oil—for the special relationship. The ranks of the AAEs, as they call them, include Pakistan, long-time beneficiary of U.S. aid and its proxy in various Afghanistan war campaigns (during which Pakistan both supported the Taliban and sometimes fought against them) and also supports Islamic forces militarily opposed to the United States. Additionally, it harbored Osama bin Laden, who was killed there by invading U.S. troops who declined to notify the Pakistanis of their mission.

Other AAEs in their summary: Saudi Arabia, which the United States has long protected, but whose “petrodollars funded schools, charities, and other institutions that spread the intolerant and frequently violent Wahhabi creed,” and Qatar, which hosts U.S. military bases, also had an “undeniable preference during the Arab Uprisings for supporting Islamist groups,” has hosted and backed Hamas, and  supported 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. 

Allying with an AAE like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia seems straightforward compared to picking partners in the Libyan civil war, where Arab nationalists are fighting Islamists — only the conflict isn’t as simple as blue versus gray. Tribal loyalties, rival militias, regional interests, and random brigands muddle the picture in Libya. Its Arab neighbors — Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — have picked sides and sent help. The same applies to the Syrian battleground, and to the ongoing civil war in Iraq, where the centuries-old Sunni and Shi’ite battle adds another factionalist overlay.

Too bad foreign policy can’t be played with an index fund, using a formula that spreads risk but still reaps rewards. The United States will need a super index if the territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea turns into a shooting war pitting China against Vietnam against Taiwan against the Philippines, with a little additional hot action from Malaysia and Brunei. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who has the most valid claim?

The case for non-intervention is never more clear than when a country can’t accurately predict the outcome (successful or otherwise) of its military action, its military aid, or other “partnering.” Just because the United States has the firepower to “degrade and destroy” a bloodthirsty belligerent, a promise President Barack Obama just made to the Islamic State, does not make it wise to do so. Will further U.S. intervention in these Arab wars only extend the bloodshed? Only establish new tyrants? Create new AAEs? If a trillion dollars worth of military intervention over a decade by the United States failed to accomplish its goals in Iraq, what are the chances that less pricey interventions will succeed?

Clearly, since the end of the Cold War, the moral certainty of which group to back in which conflict and how far to back them has become less automatic. (The less said about the moral certainty of U.S. intervention in Vietnam the better). Gartenstein-Ross and Schanzer wisely counsel that the United States minimize its entanglements with AAEs and avoid, where possible, becoming entangled with new ones. In practical terms for the United States, this means editing the enemies list down to a manageable level. Once a nation starts drawing red lines around “enemies,” as Obama did in a speech about Syria more than a year ago, words become tantamount to military action.

There are plenty of genuine perils for the United States to consider without canvassing the planet for additional ones. The United States can’t possibly intervene in every region where injustice, murder, military aggression, and pillage take place. So why exactly must it join the Arab world’s great civil wars?


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PHOTO: Shi’ite militia fighters take their position at the frontline during their fight against Islamic State militants in Al Bohassan village September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah


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America is prone to bellicose saber rattling based on the theory of god-given ‘exceptionalism.’ Yet neither the government, nor the people themselves, have the patience to view the historical past objectively nor to see the future without self-serving military mercantilism. With friends like that….

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

A genuinely ingenuous way forward for the United States perilous relationships in the Middle East Military Proving Grounds, would be to focus all of her precious resources into Humanitarian Missions, on the fringes of the constantly shifting battlegrounds. Replacing the movement of munitions and military-might with the movement of essential medical supplies, food, water, and medical personnel into these zones would shift the consciousness of her peoples to embrace the humanitarianism of the mighty United States. A paradigm shift in perceptions of these battle weary souls to the intent of the US and her allies would be beneficial to fostering future peaceful accord between all the players enmeshed in her perpetual unrest.

Intelligence gathering prospects would have to be significantly enhanced by having caring forces of health workers greeting the exodus of displaced peoples at her borders, rather than being greeted by enemy combatants from distant lands after fleeing merciless vagabonds in their own lands. You would have to assume that a much more accurate picture of fluid conflicts could be pieced together, if one’s might was harnessed for the general good, rather than a series of fleeting military victories relying on tentative,uncertain and mercurial alliances; as outlined by Jack in his quality take on historical battle lines in the sand and in the tundra.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

The United States may not be able to intervene in every region where military aggression and atrocities take place, but that leaves unspoken the caveat that the United States can indeed intervene in some of those places. So why must we intervene in the Arab World’s great civil wars? Because the defense of human rights is paramount, and because we have the most powerful military on Earth.

Posted by General_Mosh | Report as abusive

“If a trillion dollars worth of military intervention over a decade by the United States failed to accomplish its goals in Iraq, what are the chances that less pricey interventions will succeed?”


Uh, no… We accomplished the goal of having a fairly legitimate government that didn’t included the biggest troublemakers, and also had relative peace. It didn’t fall apart completely, until everything was pulled out. Interesting how some people seem to be very good at forgetting this fact.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Look at the map before WWI : “Ottoman Empire”. then After WWII :Palestine, Syria, Iraq. What is NOT there tells the story.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

I think the US could easily stay out of Arab wars now–especially since they have plenty of domestic oil and gas thanks to fracking.

The problem arises when those meddling media types post videos of multitudes of innocents being brutally massacred. Once that happens, people get angry, and demand action.

To intervene or not to intervene–either way there will be critics.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

If Putin isn’t faced with serious counter measures the situation will probably worsen. He has aluded to his nuclear arms several times in discussions offered publicly. He’s aware we have similar capability, which means he’s posturing in order to frighten. Time to put timidity aside and confront him with a showing of strength: militarily, politically and with full determination. His kind will push until met with really tough resistance. So far we’re lacking in that regard.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive

The US had very few enemies a 15 years ago and have now successfully created a nebulous free form set of nano enemies called terrorists. Their unsuccessful attempt to take over oil states and willingness to cater to war for profit is a failed foreign policy for average USA citizens.

We will be at war for decades and will continue to create more war in increasing frequency all over the world.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive