Paul Pillar

Encouraging Enemies to Gang Up Against Us

A form of myopia that afflicts many Americans and American policy makers—some more than others—as they look at the outside world is a failure to perceive how the United States's own actions stimulate negative behavior by others. To some extent this pattern is hardly unique to Americans and is an example of what realist scholars call a security dilemma: one country takes steps (such as increasing its armaments or deploying its armed forces) that it regards as defensive and precautionary but that an adversary sees as threatening, leading the adversary to respond with steps that it considers defensive but the first country sees as threatening, and so forth. The United States seems especially prone to setting this kind of unhealthy dynamic in motion, perhaps because as the planet's superpower it has more weight to throw around than anyone else and can do more things that are threatening in the eyes of more people and more countries than anyone else.

But the American pattern goes beyond classic security dilemmas with adversaries. It is also a matter of consigning some other countries or groups to permanent adversarial status and of foreclosing possibilities for a relationship evolving to where the parties are no longer active enemies and, if not friends, are harmlessly indifferent toward each other. Self-fulfilling assumptions are involved. We assume the other party is an implacable enemy, leading to policies that leave the other party with no options other than to be an implacable enemy.

A variant on this pattern involves our adversaries, or would-be adversaries, acting in alliance with each other. Self-fulfilling assumptions again are involved. We assume axes of evil, partnerships between regimes and terrorist groups, or extremist forces in a region acting in concert. Our assumptions may be false and overlook substantial differences of interests and objectives among supposedly allied parties. But then through our own policies and actions we provide incentive for such alliances to form. Several items in the news involve this pattern.

We read on the front page of the New York Times that armed groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that have long been rivals to one another are now cooperating in combat operations against NATO forces. The groups include elements of the Taliban under the Quetta shura, the fighters of the Haqqani family, and militias associated with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The impetus for such new cooperation is the military pressure that our own forces have applied. A false assumption underlying much of the rationale for the NATO campaign in the AfPak theater is that the forces on the other side are an alliance of bad guys, including militias and terrorist groups, with a common set of objectives opposed to our own. Now by our own actions we are making this false assumption come true, at least at the tactical and operational level.

Then there is Sarah Palin conjuring up an alliance between Iran and al-Qaeda. See Bruce Riedel's well-informed examination of this misconception, which involves two parties with plenty of reason to be hostile to each other. The one development that would start making this chimerical alliance a reality would be an escalation of confrontation between the United States and Iran, especially to the point of military conflict. As Bruce points out, “Several al-Qaeda leaders have publicly said an American-Iranian war would be good for al-Qaeda and should be encouraged.”

Syria has been a real ally of Iran, with the initial impetus being their common hostility with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. With Saddam gone, circumstances have changed and so have the possibilities for enticing Syria onto a different course, as the Iraq Study Group argued. The study group's co-chair, James Baker, observed that Syria can be flipped. But too much of the U.S. posture continues to reflect an implicit assumption that Syria is an implacable foe and its old alliances are immutable. The main blame for this recently has lain with Republicans in Congress, who have refused to concur with President Obama's appointment ten months ago of a new U.S. ambassador to Syria. The good news this week is the president's decision to use a recess appointment to send the ambassador—Robert Ford, a career diplomat—to Damascus.

The United States faces enough challenges and opposition in the world without making things worse for itself by promoting, through its own policies and actions, alliances whose main reason for being is hostility against the United States.