We’ve all heard the cliche: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is supposed to explain why nations that normally are bitter foes sometimes will work with each other and even join forces when they face a common hated adversary. Iran and the United States, for instance, might use back channels to cooperate on efforts to stop the intensely violent Sunni Muslim force that is rolling over Iraq to carve out a Sunni country.
The ISIS shorthand — or ISIL, if you prefer — are names that actually have rational historic meaning to go along with their insane religious motivation. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or the Levant) refers to efforts to establish this gruesome theocracy in a large portion of the Mideast that extends from southern Turkey through Iraq and Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. And of yeah, Israel. Remember that many borders were arbitrarily created after World War II, an effort that, among other things, created the state of Israel. ISIS (or ISIL) wants to rule over an area that does away with all that and impose a rule of law that dates back millennia.
Iran, which is Shiite Muslim, has an obvious determination to stop that from happening, as does the U.S. So now we have a shared interest. But we also share that interest with the Assad government in Syria, whose brutal use of military force, killing thousands and thousands of innocent citizens to put down an armed military rebellion, has generated international condemnation. It’s dominated by battle-hardened troops that have now split off to conduct their Levant campaign, using, by the way, sophisticated weapons that they’ve merely taken from the arsenals provided by countries like America, who wanted to topple Bashar Assad. Assad wastes no opportunity to say the equivalent of “I told you so.”
So we’re now confronted with the surprise rampage of militants that have been so successful that President Barack Obama had to use U.S. military force against them, first by sending “advisers” back into Iraq — a war-torn nation from which he had undone the U.S. deadly commitment and bragged about it — and now by sending U.S. jets to bomb the militants, who seem to be on their way to taking over from the feckless allies we left behind to govern.
In our political world, that now has generated some unusual solidarity. Suddenly, the Republicans, who constantly have slammed Obama for his namby-pamby use of American force, have had little choice but to support the use of air power. Of course, they make sure to stick the knife in a little bit by complaining that what he’s done is too little, too late. The White House is doing all it can to insist that too little is quite enough, although the president is quick to say that the air strikes will take more than just “a few weeks.” Overall, we have an interesting paradox, where an action of war has brought relative peace to the usual partisan belligerence.
All it took was the threat of genocide to unite everyone’s purpose … at least until the Sunday talk shows. We’ll never, ever return to the time when “politics stops at the water’s edge,” particularly with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for all the messes in the Mideast, but the responsibility for the various matters lies somewhere in between years of inept foreign policy and impossibly complex situations in which no matter what the United States does, it’s wrong.
Do we impose democratic values on countries that, culturally, have never experienced them, and do we then accept the consequences of their free elections? Whatever the outcome, it can and will be second-guessed. And certainly in a country — ours — where the political system is paralyzed in the battle of Americans versus Americans.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.