by Ted Snider
June 26, 2014

Once in a while the inconsistencies in American foreign policy become sufficiently clear to reveal the consistency in American foreign policy. Three contemporary inconsistencies in Iraq and Syria, all clearly connected, converge to throw America’s consistent foreign policy into sharp relief.

In an astonishing shift of geopolitical realities, America finds itself, literally, at war with itself. Though Syria and Iraq are consistently presented as two separate stories – the one in Syria as a hopeful rebellion; the one in Iraq as a terrorist uprising – the protagonist of the first story is the same character as the one cast as the antagonist in the second. As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have said, “Washington elites are effectively compartmentalizing these stories – but, in fact, they are intimately related.” In Iraq, America opposes the Sunni rebellion led by ISIS; in Syria, America is backing the Sunni rebellion where, as Juan Cole has put it, the “most effective opposition is ISIS.” So when Obama says at his West Point commencement that he will “ramp up” American support for Sunni rebels in Syria, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, using the same phrase, explains that “the United States has ramped up its support . . . providing lethal and non-lethal support where we can to support both the civilian opposition and the military opposition” in one policy discussion, and then the President announces that he is sending nearly 300 marines and 300 special forces to Iraq as advisors in another policy discussion, the translation is that America is arming and advising both sides of the same war: that America is providing lethal support against its own marines and special forces. In a war with two fronts, with increasingly porous borders blending it increasingly into one front, America is fighting for opposing sides on each front: in a stark exposition of foreign policy inconsistency, America is effectively fighting itself.

But it’s not an inconsistency. It is only an inconsistency if your premise about American foreign policy is that it has anything to do with aiding the foreign country for which the policy is designed. If that premise were true, then ISIS couldn’t be a terrorist organization and a liberation army simultaneously. But if you change the premise and accept the unalterable facts on the ground, that American foreign policy is really an instrument of domestic policy, that it is designed to benefit American, and not foreign, interests, then the inconsistency disappears. It is not inconsistent to fight with ISIS on one front and against ISIS on the other if fighting with ISIS brings about a favorable American outcome on one front and fighting against ISIS brings about a favorable American outcome on the other. The consistency is the favorable American outcome on both fronts. The ironic choice of partners is merely the means to those consistent ends.

You can’t change the facts. So you have to change your premises to make sense of the facts. The fact is, America is fighting against itself: with ISIS and the Sunni rebels in Syria and against them in Iraq. That leaves only figuring out the premise. What is the consistent goal to be attained by the inconsistent means without which American foreign policy makes no sense?

America has long sought to remove Bashar Al-Assad because it viewed Syria as the closest and most important ally of Iran. But it seemed to take America longer to realize that part of the blowback from its regime change in Iraq was that that was no longer true. The closest and most important ally of Iran was now Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. The consistent goal on both fronts of the war seems to be the weakening of Iran by the severing or weakening of Iran’s alliances.

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