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David Rothkopf

America’s worst allies: friends we could’ve lived without

Back to Pakistan’s “get out of jail free” card for Khan, I was left again with that nagging feeling that we are headed down a familiar road for the United States, where allies we embrace for seemingly pragmatic reasons ultimately become our worst nightmares. In fact, making a list of America’s worst allies reveals a ...

US vice president-elect Joe Biden (2L) chats with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (R) and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar (C) at The Prime Minister's House in Islamabad on January 9, 2009. Biden met Pakistan's president to discuss tensions with India and the anti-terror fight in South Asia, 11 days before he takes office with Barack Obama, an aide said. Biden, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sat down with President Asif Ali Zardari at the start of a regional tour with Republican senator Lindsey Graham. AFP PHOTO/ Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back to Pakistan’s “get out of jail free” card for Khan, I was left again with that nagging feeling that we are headed down a familiar road for the United States, where allies we embrace for seemingly pragmatic reasons ultimately become our worst nightmares.

In fact, making a list of America’s worst allies reveals a trend that suggests that the world’s hyper power could easily have been cast alongside Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johansson in He’s Just Not That Into You as one of those prototypical women who buys the line of every sweet-talking guy in town and wakes up in the morning wondering why she feels so used. Seriously, we ought to be taking relationship advice from Anne Hathaway at this point. 

Let’s make the list. Pick the five worst allies the United States has had in the past 100 years. Set up some reasonable criteria, things you look for in a good ally. So for example, one criterion would be advancing our national interests (or, alternatively, not dedicating themselves to our destruction). Another would be constancy (or, alternatively, not using us and then ditching us when the next best looking cause glides into town). Another, since this is a list of worst allies (all alliances, like all marriages, are imperfect and require work), would be to measure the degree of the damage they did to us or sought to do to us.

Finally, other guidelines probably need to be used — for example, if a country underwent a coup or a revolution that changed completely its political orientation it probably ought not to be included on a list of allies who turned against us while under the same leadership that created, sought or supported the alliance.

Before listing the very worst cases of turnabout, it is worth noting a few of the countries that were candidates for various reasons. (My candidates follow, but please, offer your own suggestions.) Certainly some of you will nominate the likes of France for being allies who made it difficult for the Atlantic alliance to get anything done and which — often for little more reason than modest economic gain — undermined embargoes and other measures to pressure bad actors into behaving. I have no doubt that others will suggest that Israel has actually put us and our interests at risk by allowing the settlement of the West Bank and heavy-handedly keeping the Palestinians down. Some may feel that the embrace of Taiwan has caused more problems than it was worth, though it is undeniable that they were doing what many in the United States thought was in our collective interests. Still others might contend that the billions spent in Egypt or Colombia resulted in abuses or supported regimes whose interests were not always well aligned with ours. Suharto was a good “friend” except to the extent that he was behind the genocide in Timor or was breathtakingly corrupt. The Shah of Iran was a good ally for years, modernizing that country, but it can be argued that between the abuses of SAVAK, his secret police, and his lavish spending, he provoked a revolution that has upset the balance in the Middle East for years. Venezuela was once America’s best friend in Latin America but now, not so much. The list goes on. 

So who are the worst in modern U.S. history?

5. France

While they are not guilty of undercutting American interests in ways that are anything like the four other countries cited on this list (all of whom have gone or seem ready to go from being allies to actually being enemies), France has earned a special place on America’s frienemies list for being so relentlessly difficult to deal with. They might call it tough love, but for as long as the Atlantic Alliance has existed they have been a drag on it and in numerous cases in the emerging world they tacitly or directly supported our adversaries or undercut American interests. To be fair, it is tough to pick on them for undercutting us when, especially for most of the past eight years, our policies have often been so worthy of undercutting. And furthermore, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that there has been a thaw in the air of late thanks to the more pro-U.S. attitude of President Sarkozy. Still, it is clear that the country that coined the term hyperpower hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that the little band of colonies it helped midwife into existence as a nation long ago passed it in influence politically, militarily, economically and, culturally. So, in the end, they earn the special distinction of being the most dysfunctional of our more high functioning alliances. 

4. Pakistan

Pakistan is number four with a bullet. (For those of you outside the record industry, that means number four but moving up the list.)

This is a country that we have supported and to which we have provided copious aid that nonetheless has become a haven for our worst enemies, a violator of the most fundamental interests of the modern world (against WMD proliferation), a host for terrorists that strike out against other allies and which seems increasingly to be a coup away from fulfilling its long-touted promise of being the most dangerous place in the world. Few countries can match their record of being so anti-American even as they were still ostensibly our allies. One of the worst foreign policy errors made in modern history was the decision post 9/11 to look the other way on the emergence of Pakistan’s nuclear program and lift sanctions associated with it in order to gain tactical “advantage” in our war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan by shutting off escape routes into Pakistan.

Only problem: not only is it impossible to shut off those routes, but big portions of the Pakistani intelligence service and the Pakistani population were actively allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda. So much so that now they call our ally home.

3. Saddam Hussein

We made Saddam. We sought him as a counter-balance against the power of revolutionary Iran. We gave him aid, looked the other way when he used chemical weapons and brutally murdered and abused his people and generally wrote off the ugliness to realpolitik. Then, he literally became our enemy entering in effect a constant state of war with the United States for a decade and a half. He ultimately cost us trillions, strengthened our enemies, and invited us into a conflict that has deeply undercut our stature in the world and sapped our military strength. As in all of these twisted alliances, we bear plenty of responsibility for making the situation worse. But as ungrateful, self-serving, twisted, bad allies go, Saddam is certainly headed for a place in the Hall of Fame.

2. The Mujahideen of the Soviet-Afghan War

Yes, with our help they managed the only major defeat suffered by the Soviet Army and in so doing they probably help precipitate the decline and fall of the Soviet empire. Yes, they fought heroically against a much more heavily armed foe that employed horrific tactics. But in the end, many members of the Mujahideen kept the weapons and turned their anti-Western attitudes against the United States. From these groups came both the Taliban and al Qaeda. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who used the skill sets he developed as a U.S.-backed fighter to build the terror organization that ultimately conducted the most deadly attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. As he remains our number one enemy and a symbol to a movement that still threatens us worldwide, his place high atop this list can’t be disputed.

1. The Soviet Union

There are few examples of the backfiring of the playing the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend card that will ever rival this one. The Soviets not only went from by our indispensible ally in defeating the Nazis to being the Evil Empire with which we were locked in a death struggle for almost half a century, but they for a while, they were clearly both. As World War II drew to a close, it was already clear that battle lines were being drawn for a potential future conflict with the Russians. Joint victory celebrations, laden with tension, became opportunities to divide up Europe into what would instantly become its Cold War boundaries. In the name of the “cold” conflict that followed, hot wars bled the world for decades and the planet was at the precarious edge of self-inflicted extinction throughout. 

But as I say, these are off the top of my head coming out of the weekend. Better ideas are welcome, especially since I don’t really like lumping France in with these really bad relationships. (Although it’s always fun to tweak them.) And it feels wrong to leave out Asians or Latins.

So… suggestions anyone?


 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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