Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday August 31st, 2014

President Barack Obama could bring together elements of both the left and the right in this country, if he did something he may be contemplating – namely - at least tacitly making common cause with the brutal dictator Syrian President Bashar Assad against the even more brutal militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (ISIS)

At first blush that sounds pretty bad. But before jumping off the deep end in righteous indignation, I have been musing about lessons of history that may apply to understanding shifting alliances.

As the popular 19th century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, put it to the British House of Commons,

 We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” In those days those interests were whatever was good for Britain and the British Empire.

However amoral and cold blooded this may seem, let me remind you of a time when the United States and Britain set morality and ideology aside and became allies with one of modern history’s greatest mass murders - the Soviet Union’s dictator Joseph Stalin - because that was the only way to win World War Two.

 At the time Britain had a particular reason to despise Stalin. On August 31st, 1939 -just one week before WWII would begin  - Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. In a secret part of the deal the two agreed to divvy up Poland, the Baltic States and much of Eastern Europe. But the pact’s importance for the British and French was that Hitler was now free to wage war against Western Europe, without having to worry about his eastern front. As the Low Countries and France quickly fell and London was soon to be laid waste by the German Luftwaffe in the 1940 Battle of Britain, Stalin was considered an evil co-conspirator with Hitler. But that was about to change.

On June 22nd 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In Operation Barbarossa, described as the largest invasion in the history of warfare, about four million troops along an 1800 mile front swept into the Soviet Union

For Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British people this was a great relief as it apparently meant that Hitler had given up on plans to invade Britain. Throughout the 1930’s Churchill been outspokenly anti- Soviet. But when he got wind of Barbarossa, he said to his personal secretary John Colville,

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

The United States was no friend of Moscow either. But when America entered the war six months later, it did so as a de-facto ally and major arms supplier of the Soviet Union. By February 1945 at the Yalta Summit, Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt were competing for Stalin’s favor. Churchill wanted to be sure the Soviets stayed in the war in Europe until Hitler was defeated. And Roosevelt got Stalin’s promise to join the war against Japan, although that would become unnecessary once the atomic bomb was successfully tested.

Still, there is no doubt that as far as the war in Europe was concerned, the alliance with Russia paid off. As Churchill told his people, “It is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German Army.”

The second major instance when strategic interests trumped morality was the American effort to reverse more than two decades of hostile relations with the People’s Republic of China. In sheer numbers of victims, Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong probably out-did Stalin as a mass murderer by several million. But at the height of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger calculated that a broad range of American interests would be served, especially security interests, if America could normalize relations with this increasingly powerful Asian giant.

In his book, The White House Years, former Secretary of State Kissinger wrote. “For twenty years, U.S. policy makers had considered China as a brooding, chaotic, fanatical and alien realm difficult to comprehend and impossible to sway…..These twenty years of gridlock had blinded our experts, and no doubt their opposite numbers in the People’s Republic, to a vital change; an emerging, still only dimly perceived community of interest between the United States and China.”

In February 1970, Kissinger discussed with Nixon, themes of a secret message to be conveyed to the Chinese. It would say that the U.S. wanted to send an emissary to Peking… “that we wanted to make a fresh start- that we would not participate in a Soviet-American condominium (against China), that we would proceed not on the basis of ideology, but on an assessment of mutual interests.” 

After eventually getting a positive response from China, Kissinger wrote, “Only extraordinary concerns about Soviet purpose could explain the Chinese wish to sit down with a nation heretofore vilified as the archenemy….what the Chinese really wanted to discuss was the global balance of power.”

In February 1972, hardline, anti-communist President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China. The “mutual interests” that brought the two countries together were their concerns about the Soviet Union. Those worries were alleviated by the visit and the negotiations that ultimately led to full normalization of relations.

Whatever further action President Obama may propose in dealing with ISIS militants, it is certainly not in Syria President Assad’s interests for ISIS to be successful. So he has that shared interest with numerous countries including America. No public agreements need be made. Tacit understandings might be reached- for instance that Assad’s sophisticated air defenses wouldn’t shoot at U.S. planes if they were attacking ISIS bases inside Syria.

Such attacks might help Assad militarily. But that should not preclude U.S. action in Syria. Today ISIS is by far the greater threat to the interests of America and the region.

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