Opinionista Kalim Rajab 1 October 2015

Obama may have to dance with the devil

Remembering the conundrums which faced Winston Churchill during World War II may prove instructive when considering the current Syrian crisis. The irony of Churchill’s finest hour is that in opposing two ideologies he abhorred – Nazism and its twin, fascism – he had to temporarily reconcile himself with another ideology he abhorred – communism.

Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.

Oh what a cynical way to begin a column! Indeed it is, but while idealism has been responsible for some of mankind’s greatest achievements, the sad reality is that, in the sphere of foreign policy and high-stakes diplomacy, it is most often pragmatism and compromised trade-offs which have the most lasting impact.

This week the Russian ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, said as much when, in trying to describe the enigma facing the international community over the Syrian crisis quagmire, he quoted Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, the indispensable statesman and scholar of diplomacy over the last half century who is as much reviled as he is revered, famously asserted that choices in foreign policy are not a choice between good and evil, but rather between shades of bad.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Syria, a crisis midwifed in large part by collateral damage from the Bush administration’s War on Terror, but also exacerbated by the Obama administration’s well-meaning but unfortunately ineffectual attempts at resolution. The crisis has escalated over four long years – a period equal in length to World War I, and fast approaching that of World War II. Initially it seemed fairly straightforward for Western powers – Bashir al-Assad was a dictator, unquestionably guilty of gross human rights abuses against his own people and thus deserving of being deposed. Of course Syria would be better off in the long run being run by a democrat. But the reason that issues in the Middle East prove intractable is precisely because of the sheer complexity of the geopolitical landscape – to quote an observation made elsewhere but equally as relevant, it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Four years on, and Al-Assad has proven remarkably resilient to unseat, at a time when US President Barack Obama is aware of the limits of American power and the huge cost of traditional armed warfare. And battered as the Syrian army has become, it is obvious to all that it still remains the strongest military force in the country. At the same time, the rebel opposition forces have proved to be disappointing bed-fellows, frustratingly rudderless and betraying undemocratic tendencies. Added to the caustic mix are Kurdish separatists in the north, long victims of violent repression but whose long-term motives remain unclear, and whose methods appear questionable. And looming largest of all is the spectre of Islamic State (IS), the most barbaric and inhumane threat of all, and one which threatens not just regional but international stability. They represent a stain on humanity, in the same way Nazism was a stain on humanity.

Illegitimate government forces, rebel insurgents, separatists, anarchists – a truly toxic mix.

And this is of course before one adds the panoply of geopolitical players who hope to use the situation for their own purposes. Iran, which has backed the government forces, mainly through its proxy Hezbollah, and which hopes to increase its sphere of influence in the region by growing Shia Muslim dominance in Syria. Turkey, which is against the Shia government of Al-Assad, but which is equally concerned with the Kurdish threat and whether that will threaten its own territories. Saudi Arabia, the traditional foe of Iran, which would like to see Sunni influence re-established in the area. And finally the most difficult to read player, Russia. While his precise intentions are unclear, President Vladimir Putin has consistently been a staunch ally of Al-Assad as a bulwark against the American-Saudi Arabia axis, and has thus armed the Syrian government forces against the opposition. Lately, however, Russia has realised the danger of Islamist radicalism spreading to its eastern Baltic regions, and made it clear that bolstering Al-Assad is the only viable force to combat IS.

Who would want to be Obama now? At the tail end of his presidency, he faces a near impossible task whichever way he turns. On the one hand, he knows that his inability to commit ground forces effectively hamstrings him, meaning the US-led coalition cannot go it alone against both the Syrian army and IS. At the same time, he understandably baulks at the idea of allying himself with Russia – an act which would implicitly condone Russia’s illegal takeovers of the Ukraine and the Crimea – as well as with Al-Assad, the enemy who was the reason for the US-led coalition entering Syria in the first place all those years ago. Yet equally, the more uncoordinated the attack on IS, the potentially stronger it will grow on a national stage, to the detriment of the world.

It’s an era-defining moment, full of historic implications, and scarily, of consequences which we cannot even begin to imagine. All we can be certain of is that the world will not be the same for many years after this. So what does he do? There are no end of international pundits rendering advice, many of whom are well placed to do so. For my part, I think it interesting to reflect on a similar conundrum which faced Winston Churchill at the beginning of War War II. It’s a conundrum which is often forgotten now, as we chiefly remember him for his courageous stand in saving Western Europe from the relentless tide of Nazism. But, I think, the fact that it is often forgotten is precisely its power; a tacit admission by society that we acknowledge Kissinger’s argument of foreign policy choices being shades of bad.

The irony of Churchill’s finest hour is that in opposing two ideologies he abhorred – Nazism and its twin, fascism – he had to temporarily reconcile himself with another ideology he abhorred – communism.

Long before the rise of Adolf Hitler, Churchill had hated communism, belittling its “philosophy of failure … with its inherent vice being the equal sharing of misery”. His abhorrence had begun with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. For Churchill, it threatened everything he held dear – the rule of empire, the divine right of kings, a free market and property rights underpinned by the rule of law. He reserved some of his most acerbic vitriol for attacking it, calling the Soviet Union “poisoned and infected with armed swarms of typhus-bearing vermin”.

Despite this, his greatness was that he could see more clearly than most that if the greater international threat of Nazism were to be beaten, then the Soviet Union and its tyrannical leader, Joseph Stalin, would have to be temporarily embraced as an ally.

How appalling it must have been to Churchill to find common cause with the butcher of the Ukraine. He laboured under no misapprehension that Stalin only sought an alliance in order to consolidate his position and that he harboured longer term ambitions to extend Soviet reach. Stalin had even betrayed Britain previously, negotiating an agreement with Hitler on how to carve out Europe between them before Hitler – calamitously for Germany – reneged. No wonder Churchill likened trying to maintain good relations with a communist to wooing a crocodile – “You don’t know whether to tickle it under the chin or beat it on the head. When it opens its mouth you cannot tell whether it is trying to smile, or preparing to eat you up.”

The temporary alliance between the US and Britain with Russia couldn’t hold, and would ultimately lay the foundations for a destructive Cold War, with profoundly (negative) implications for large parts of Africa, Eastern Europe and Vietnam. While this may be so, the fact that the basic value systems our societies currently hold so dear to us – the basic freedoms of liberty and brotherhood based on trust and equality – endure is in large part because Western Europe remained free, and was not overrun by the dark forces of Nazism and fascism. This is Churchill’s great legacy to us, owed in large measure to his ability to dance with the devil when it mattered most.

There may be a lesson in this somewhere for Obama. DM

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