In a way, the elites and members of the public in many countries, especially in the greater Middle East, see their relationship with the United States as nothing more than a one-night stand or, at best, a brief affair. They recognize that they may sleep with the United States in the same bed, but that the citizens of the two countries don’t have the same strategic dreams (promoting the cause of Islam) or nightmares (Israel).
At the same time, American elites and publics have a tendency to impose their somewhat romantic wishful thinking on these relationships, imagining that the people in those countries love Americans and want to be like them. In fact, most Pakistanis or Egyptians regard the United States as an enemy.
This American tendency to romanticize a flirtation or brief affair with other nations as a love story is reminiscent of the way in which ruthless Soviet dictator Stalin was transformed into a warm and cuddly Uncle Joe in the minds of many American officials and journalists, even after World War II ended.
Or recall the way President Ronald Reagan compared the Islamist guerrillas battling the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which included bin Laden, to the American revolutionaries who fought the British forces in North America.
And let’s not forget the time when members of the Bush administration likened Ahmed Chalabi, the shady Iraqi politician who lobbied for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, to French general Charles de Gaulle, who led the fight to liberate France from German occupation during World War II.
A more realistic U.S. foreign-policy perspective wouldn’t be based on wishful thinking and fantasies. Instead, it would make a clear distinction between nations and governments that have become, or are in the process of becoming, part of the U.S. strategic circle, and those regimes and groups that may share a limited set of interests with the United States, groups that need to cultivate their relationship with the country while knowing that they could be expendable in the future.
And in between are frenemies like China and Russia, or, for that matter, Mexico, that cooperate with the United States on policy issues, but adopt a more adversarial approach toward the country when it comes to other matters.
In that context, the notion that Washington and Moscow share common interests in defeating ISIS and combating radical Islamic terrorism makes a lot of sense. Yet opponents of this type of U.S. partnership with Russia keep warning that the United States shouldn’t fall in love with—and propose a strategic marriage to—Moscow. Meanwhile, President Trump’s rhetoric and body language sometimes give off the impression that he might be romantically infatuated with the Kremlin.
This debate could end if both sides agree that the goal is to enter into a brief and limited partnership with the Russians, and that that no one should expect to hear the sound of wedding bells anytime soon.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Image: British prime minister Theresa May with Donald Trump. Flickr/Creative Commons/Number 10