Washington Can’t Create Rivalries, It Can Only Exploit Them

Washington Can’t Create Rivalries, It Can Only Exploit Them

Washington has never been able to create differences among its adversaries but only take advantage of those differences that had already emerged between them.


The National Interest recently published an article I wrote entitled, “Getting Smart about Dividing America’s Adversaries.” A critique of my article was subsequently published by Bouthaina Shaaban with the title, “Getting Smart!!!“ in Al Mayadeen—a Beirut-based news outlet that Wikipedia describes as being, “viewed as pro-Hezbollah and pro-Syrian government.” While the bio line on her article about my article demurely describes her just as “an Arab intellectual,” Shaaban is much more than that. She has served as a political and media adviser to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and “has been described as the Syrian government’s face to the outside world.” She has been sanctioned both by the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union.

This being the case, whatever she has to say is probably either reflective of or at least in tune with the Assad regime. Indeed, I witnessed her strenuously expressing the Assad government’s viewpoint in person in Moscow at the February 2018 Valdai Conference on the Middle East. Just after both Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave speeches expressing sympathy for Turkey because the United States was supporting the Syrian Kurdish forces whom Ankara regarded as enemies, Shaaban harshly denounced Turkish intervention in northwestern Syria and accused Ankara of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Turkish-Syrian border.


It should not come as a surprise, then, that she disagreed—vehemently—with my article in The National Interest. In it, I argued that while in the past Washington had succeeded at exploiting rivalries between its adversaries (most notably Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s exploitation of the Sino-Soviet rift), the United States has not been as successful at this recently. The reasons I cited were opposition from both some of America’s existing allies and politically powerful domestic political forces inside the United States as well as the increased ability of America’s adversaries to exploit differences between Washington and its traditional allies.

According to Shabaan, however, “the US was not using disputes, but creating disputes in order to weaken all parties and stay as the most hegemonic power in the equation.” She further noted that what I “described as ‘taking advantage of disputes’ is seen by the people of these countries as igniting and creating disputes.” But the United States was not able to do this now because “most people all over the world have matured and become truly aware of the objectives of the US in … its endeavors to torment them one way or other.” Further, the “true intentions and purposes’’ of the United States “have become vivid to all in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” and this “is precisely why the US is no longer able to do what it used to do in the past.”

Her logic implies that if the United States cannot take advantage of (or, as Shaaban argues) create differences between its adversaries because “most people all over the world have matured and become truly aware of the objectives of the US,” then this must not have been true in the past when the United States was able to do this successfully. However, the adversaries whose divisions the United States was able to previously exploit were not democracies but authoritarian regimes. American diplomacy succeeded in working with not the people of these countries, but their hitherto anti-American leaders such as those of Communist China and Vietnam as well as of Arab nationalist Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Even then, it was not any American charm offensive that persuaded previously anti-American leaders such as Mao Zedong, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein (in the 1980s), and Muammar Qaddafi that they had previously been oh so wrong about Washington, and now saw that America was really their true friend. No, these previously anti-American leaders decided that certain other anti-American regimes or movements were more of a threat or problem to them than America, and that they could more readily deal with that threat or problem with America’s help.

If America’s adversaries now have differences with each other but do not turn to the United States for support, it is because they continue to regard the U.S. as more of a threat despite their differences with other anti-American regimes or movements, and so have no desire for any help from America. This is not because the anti-American authoritarian leaders of today, “have matured and become truly aware of the objectives of the US,” while those of the past were not. Instead, what matured in the past was rivalry between anti-American regimes or movements. For example, the Sino-Soviet rift had raged for over a decade (during which Moscow and Beijing competed with each other in supporting Marxist and other anti-Western movements) before each became frightened enough of the other to cooperate with the U.S. government that each had previously reviled. Similarly, Egypt’s Sadat did not turn to the United States out of a newfound love of democracy, but because he understood that the Soviet Union could not or would not help Egypt forcibly retake the Sinai following Israel’s occupation in 1967. Thus, his only realistic hope of getting it back was through an American-backed peace process with Israel—which did indeed succeed.

The truth of the matter is that, just like the present, Washington has never been able to create differences among its adversaries but only take advantage of those differences that had already emerged between them. Even then, it can take years for this process to succeed since long-entrenched aversion both inside anti-American regimes to cooperating with the United States and inside the United States to cooperating with those same regimes must first be overcome. In fact, authoritarian leaders can implement decisions to cooperate with the hitherto reviled Americans relatively quickly after finally making up their minds that this would be in their interests. However, American administrations coming to a similar conclusion about working with adversaries must overcome often vociferous opposition from Congress and politically influential segments of the American public who will denounce any attempt at cooperation with America’s adversaries as “naive,” “weak,” or “woke.”

In other words, there is no guarantee that Washington can even exploit rivalries that have developed between its various adversaries, much less create rivalries between regimes that still regard the United States as a greater threat than each other. But in that Shaaban has reportedly been “the Syrian government’s face to the outside world,” she may not appreciate that American administrations face domestic constraints—such as Congressional and public opinion—on foreign policymaking that authoritarian leaders like Assad can simply suppress.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Shutterstock.