When America's Enemies Are Also Its Friends

U.S. attempts to coordinate with Iran in Iraq are a reminder of the growing role of allies that are adversaries, too.

President Obama’s May 28 commencement address at West Point outlined his administration’s framework for addressing twenty-first century national-security challenges. “We should not go it alone,” the president said. Instead, when faced with the need to act—whether it be military strikes, sanctions, or moral weight—Obama said that “we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” In light of the dramatic advances recently made in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda offshoot, Obama may even be preparing to enlist the Islamic Republic of Iran as one of those partners.

The possible willingness to partner with a state sponsor of terrorism that has targeted American interests over more than three decades highlights growing challenges to the U.S.’s approach to critical national-security issues—and, indeed, a problem within our existing alliances.  

Tensions and imperfect alliances are, of course, common in foreign policy: Every country maintains cordial or even close diplomatic ties with others despite significant disagreements. There are numerous examples of countries maintaining a trade relationship even when their foreign policies clash. Washington’s relationship with China is a prime example. But countries that can be considered allies, adversaries and enemies (AAEs) simultaneously are different from the kind of conflicted relationships to which the U.S. is accustomed. We consider the AAE phenomenon important enough that we edited a recently published volume for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on this problem.

An ally is a state that cooperates with another for a particular purpose, military or otherwise. The distinction between adversary and enemy is somewhat subtle, yet real. When a state is an adversary, there is a real clash of interests or values, but room for compromise. As Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, put it (albeit in the context of domestic politics), “today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally.” In contrast, Ignatieff describes an enemy as “someone you have to destroy,” and rather than being laudable, compromise with an enemy “is appeasement.”

Put another way, a state would like to best its adversary but not destroy it, while conflict with an enemy is a zero-sum game. During the Cold War, the People’s Republic of China became a U.S. adversary rather than an enemy following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, which helped produce the normalization of relations between the United States and China. The Soviet Union, in contrast, was an enemy—although the U.S.-Soviet relationship may have evolved into that of adversaries toward the end of the Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms produced a thaw.

Today, an increasing number of countries are none of the above. Or, perhaps, they are all of the above, behaving as allies, adversaries, and enemies all at once.

Pakistan: The First Post-9/11 AAE

Consider the case of Pakistan. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S.-Pakistani relationship went through several sharp oscillations. Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan had soured by the end of the 1970s because of a coup that brought Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq to power, as well as U.S. concerns about Pakistan’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan was transformed from pariah into critical strategic asset. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia channeled enormous sums of money and weapons to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) to support Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahedin factions. Pakistan’s strategic importance declined significantly after the Soviet withdrawal and end of the Cold War, after which American planners (inaccurately) viewed events in Afghanistan as a third-tier problem. Just before the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan had again become a pariah for the same reasons that its international status had plummeted in the late 1970s: nuclear issues (it tested a nuclear weapon in 1998) and a military coup (by Gen. Pervez Musharraf).

But the 9/11 attacks again transformed Pakistan into a vital strategic partner due to its geographic proximity to Afghanistan. American planners wanted to route supplies for military operations in Afghanistan through Pakistan and ensure that Pakistan ended its support for Islamist militancy. The U.S. thus provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid after the onset of its war in Afghanistan.

Pakistan did, in part, act like an ally. It allowed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) logistics to be routed through its territory, and at times provided the United States with valuable intelligence. But it also acted as an adversary, a fact best exemplified by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s long-term presence in Abbottabad. The U.S. didn’t notify Pakistan before carrying out the raid that killed bin Laden in May 2011 due to concerns that al-Qaeda’s leader might learn of the imminent strike. Further, the proximity of bin Laden’s compound to the Pakistan Military Academy made U.S. planners suspect that knowledge of his location was more widespread within the Pakistani government than that country’s establishment let on.