This section of my recent open letter about ISIL generated a robust response:
“Total commitment requires making deals with some devils. During World War II, FDR & Churchill allied with Stalin — one of history’s most murderous and aggressive dictators — to defeat Hitler, who posed a far greater threat. Similarly, I encourage you to forge alliances of convenience with Putin and Assad and any other lesser evils who can help eliminate the greater evil.”
A wise former student of mine wrote, “I fail to see how Assad is much of a better option than ISIS, and Putin’s not that great either.”
I agree. The Syrian dictator’s résumé includes mass murder, rape and torture, plus serial ethnic cleansing if not outright genocide. Putin’s uncritical support for Assad is as obviously immoral as the Russian ruler’s own depredations in Chechnya and the Ukraine.
However, there remains at least one salient difference separating ISIL from Putin and his Syrian client. As a conservative friend wrote, “Assad and the Russians are not shooting up French concert halls.”
Nor has either dictator threatened terrorist attacks upon the US.
But ISIL has.
I understand why we would prefer to avoid an alliance with Assad and Russia’s answer to Right Said Fred.
However, we would be wise to consider whether a deal with those devils could expedite the defeat of ISIL and save lives in the Middle East, Europe and the US.
Sadly, as my conservative friend noted, “The administration (Kerry) has already said [an alliance with] Assad is not an option.”
Right. Churchill and FDR hated Communism and didn’t see an alliance with the USSR as an option, either — particularly after 1939, when Stalin and Hitler made a nonaggression pact and then celebrated by invading Poland from both sides and splitting the prize. In fact, at that point in time, the Communist dictator’s résumé as a butcher vastly exceeded that of the Führer’s: Before Hitler could even start the Holocaust, Stalin had already racked up a comparable death toll of millions in the Holodomor, the genocidal Terror Famine in the Ukraine.
Nevertheless, when Hitler violated the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact by invading the USSR in 1941, Churchill and FDR saw the wisdom of sending arms and supplies to sustain the Red Army in its lonely fight against the Nazis on the eastern front. For three years, the Soviets stood virtually alone in the ground war against Hitler, until the western Allies opened up the western front in earnest on D-Day.
This alliance of convenience saved millions of American lives. Britain and the US each lost about 800,000 men in World War II — roughly 1% of the UK population and 0.3% of ours. By tragic contrast, around 27 million Soviets died — about 16% of the populace. Without our help, the USSR probably would have folded, allowing Hitler to consolidate total control of western Eurasia. This would have forced Churchill and FDR to choose between letting him keep it, or pouring millions of our own soldiers into a meat grinder of a ground war to take it away from him.
As the tale of Faust makes clear, Mephistopheles always collects. Someone invariably pays a steep price when you cut a deal with the devil. At the end of World War II, while Britain and the US liberated Western Europe from German occupation, Stalin replaced the Nazi domination of Eastern Europe with Soviet enslavement of the region for the next 45 years. Fortunately, the presence of British and US troops in Europe — coupled with financial support for Western Europe after the war — helped limit Communist expansion. However, Soviet imperial ambitions pushed the US and our allies into a worldwide Cold War to contain Communism, a process that entailed several hot wars (including Korea and Vietnam), plus a nuclear arms race that continues to jeopardize the future of life on earth.
Clearly, the deal paid off for the US. Fewer than 95,000 American soldiers died during the entire Cold War, compared to the untold millions we would have lost if forced to fight the Nazis without Soviet help.
I am not suggesting that Putin or Assad would do the bulk of the fighting for us as the USSR did against Hitler, but I do know that when you’re building an alliance…
1. More help is usually better than less;
2. The enemy of my enemy can be my friend (at least temporarily);
3. It is too late to keep Russia and Syria out of the war against ISIL, but a coordinated strategy should be more effective than disjointed independent efforts, and could also help mitigate casualties among local civilians.
4. To paraphrase LBJ’s justification for retaining J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, I’d rather have Putin and Assad inside our tent peeing out than outside our tent peeing in.
Finally, while our current minimalist presence in the Middle East does little to restrain Putin and Assad, deploying a strong NATO force against ISIL would strongly inhibit mischief by them and other bad actors in the region.
We can deal with the Syrian and Russian dictators later. As my conservative friend wrote, “Ally and eliminate ISIS then cross the Assad/Putin bridge when we get to it.”
War and life often demand ruthless prioritization. Abraham Lincoln, for example, hated slavery and wanted to end it, but when secession sundered the country, he focused first on fighting the Civil War. In an 1862 open letter, he wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it… What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
Ultimately, of course, Lincoln won the war. Although he freed some slaves during the conflict, only victory on the battlefield made it possible to abolish slavery entirely after the war.
Similarly, the US needs to defeat the immediate threat of ISIL, even if that requires holding our nose and working with putrid apples like Assad and Putin to get the job done. After we have obliterated the un-Islamic State, we can reconsider our relationship with the Syrian and Russian dictators.