Failing to Know Our Enemies
Those committed to liberty are our friends for the long haul; those intent on destroying it are not.

Iranian troops on parade


Clifford D. May

Most Americans are skeptical. A poll conducted this month by Luntz Global found that only 7 percent of respondents believe Iranian theocrats when they say they are not working to develop nuclear weapons. And more than three out of four fear that the Iranian regime would provide nukes to terrorist groups hostile to America and the West.

The average American, it appears, knows better than do many of our political elites that those vowing “Death to America!” are our foes, and that they are unlikely to become our friends no matter how much “confidence-building” we do. They know, too, that our allies are those threatened by the same enemies — and brave enough to side with us in common defense. But what are we to make of those nations that are not against us — but also are not with us?


For example, despite the much-vaunted “reset,” it’s become apparent that Vladimir Putin sees the diminishment of American power as a Russian national interest, even if that means he will have a nuclear-armed Iran not far from his southern border.

Pakistan, founded as the world’s first “Islamic republic” in 1956, can charitably be called America’s least reliable ally. Since becoming nuclear-armed in 1998, it has been responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology to any number of rogue regimes. At high levels within the country’s powerful intelligence services, there are influential individuals whose sympathies lie with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And does anyone seriously believe that no senior Pakistani officials knew that Osama bin Laden — along with three of his six wives and a passel of children — had taken up housekeeping in the hill resort of Abbottabad?

Not long ago, the Republic of Turkey was regarded as the most Western of Muslim-majority nations, a proud member of NATO. But since Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development (AK) party, was elected prime minister in 2003, Turkish nationalism has taken on an increasingly Islamist coloration.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has spent untold billions of petrodollars spreading Wahhabism, a fundamentalist and bellicose interpretation of Islam, around the world. At the same time, the Saudis have felt, and continue to feel, more secure with great-power protectors — the British before World War II, the Americans after. The Saudis are pragmatic enough to recognize the difference between a useful enemy (that would be Israel, a state that would never attack them without provocation) and a genuine threat (that would be Iran, whose rulers disdain monarchical rule in favor of velayat-e faqih — the “guardianship of jurists,” meaning mullahs who interpret Islamic law and combine religious and political power).

Also in this category of neither friends nor enemies — what teenagers call “frenemies” — is the Emirate of Qatar, which hosts America’s most important military base in the Middle East while funding and directing Al Jazeera, the popular Arabic television channel that promotes Islamic rage, anti-Americanism, blood libels against Israelis and Jews, and outrageous conspiracy theories. In June of this year, Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa was replaced by his son, Tamim. Will the young ruler move his small but rich and influential state closer to the U.S. and the West? Or will he seek to accommodate Iran or al-Qaeda’s growing network? Or will he continue to play both ends against the middle?

Qatar may be an example of the adage that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. I’m not convinced that always holds true. And even if it does, some nations’ permanent interests permanently align. Those committed to the “survival and success of liberty” are our friends for the long haul; those intent on the destruction of liberty are not. It’s as simple — and as complex — as that.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.


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