The Enemy of My Enemy Is Not Always My Friend and Regime Types Matter


I’m sure that you’ve heard the old saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is usually bandied about in popular films (such as Star Trek: Into Darkness) and, the tiresome phrase, is used frequently by the various talking heads on television. When people in the news media use the phrase, it’s meant to illustrate that they are wise. Yet, whenever someone says it, I cannot help but think that they are utterly clueless. Just for the record:  the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.


Many people do not even know where the phrase emanates from. The few that claim they do are often wrong. Despite popular belief, the phrase is not Arabic in origin. Quite the contrary, the phrase is much older. It derives from the 4th century B.C. and is attributed to  a man named Kautilya. Kautilya is often referred to as the “Indian Machiavelli.” He was a strategist who wrote a book in Sanskrit called “Arthashastra.” The phrase can be traced to Book VI: The Source of Sovereign States of Arthashastra.

While the book is a very interesting read (it is up there with Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, in my opinion), I shudder to think of applying its lessons in the modern era. Kautilya wrote his works in the context of a point in Indian history that is utterly inapplicable to the modern period–particularly when applied to the modern Middle East. It would be like trying to apply The Federalist Papers to the Afghan government in Kabul (which, to be sure, the George W. Bush Administration apparently tried to do something similar).

Think about it this way: this concept was used to justify America’s alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War, President Richard Nixon’s entente with the People’s Republic of China during the Cold War also rested on this logic, and America’s support for the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War was also justified according to Kautilyan logic. Indeed, much of America’s alliances with autocratic dictators rested on this shaky logic.

Surely, America would have fared better had it avoided many of the foreign policy actions listed in above, had our foreign policy elite not been wedded to this false logic (not that every move taken was wrong). As a corollary to this line of critique, not all autocratic states are created equally. Historically, the conservative monarchies are usually a better bet for America to align with than progressive dictatorships, like the pan-Arab socialist states that once dominated the Arab world. Remember, Saddam Hussein was once an ally of the United States. From the beginning of the alliance with Saddam, America was on unstable footing. Ultimately, as many of you know, Saddam (as progressive dictators are wont to do) overstepped his bounds and the U.S. had to bring the hammer down upon him.

Take Jordan, for instance. The Jordanians are probably one of America’s greatest allies in the Middle East. The Jordanian monarchy is an enlightened government. Their ethnic roots as Hashemites means that the Wahhabīsts are at odds with them. The monarchy of Jordan is also highly Westernized. And, while monarchy may have gone the way of the dodo in the West, one cannot understate how advanced Jordan is for the Middle East. Jordan is also devoid of the baggage that Saudi Arabia carries with it (or even the baggage that Egypt carries). Plus, their geographical location makes them heavily threatened by all of the instability occurring in the Levant.

While Jordan was gallantly fighting jihadists, the U.S. under Barack Obama was supporting Islamist groups in the Egyptian Revolution (notably the Muslim Brotherhood). As the Obama Administration lampooned Israel and ignored Jordan’s steadfast counterterrorism policies, the U.S. broke bread with Iran (the leading state sponsor of terrorism) and nominally supported jihadists in Syria. These quixotic policies have needlessly complicated America’s grand strategy for the region and has also served to empower America’s foes there.


In keeping with Kautilya’s saying, we are also aligned with none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran in our fight to push the Islamic State out of Iraq. The predominantly Shiite Muslim government of Iraq (which we midwifed) has found it difficult to secure their own borders and prevent IS from taking key points of the Sunni region of Iraq. When the Obama Administration refused to contribute anything more than airstrikes to Iraq’s fight against IS, the Iraqi government naturally turned toward their fellow Shiites in Iran.


In Iraq, the United States has essentially been acting as Iran’s air force as the Iraqi military slowly pushes IS out of Iraq. Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, Iran is aligned with Russia in defending the Assad Regime. This, then, has placed Iran in its traditional role as an antagonist to the United States. In a bid to remove Bashar Assad from power, the U.S. has been supporting Syrian rebels. While American intelligence services erroneously dub these rebels as “moderate,” in fact, in many cases, the rebels are jihadists by another name. So, in Syria, we are effectively operating as the Islamic State’s air force. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, by the way, feed off of each other. American support for Iranian-backed forces in Iraq but opposition to Iranian-backed forces in Syria is a self-negating strategy that only a Washington graybeard could conjure.

Remember, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Except that, he’s still an enemy!

  • How is America planning to justify its nominal alliance fighting against the Islamic State with Iran over in Iraq, but its continued support of jihadist “rebels” against Iran in Syria?
  • Why are American policymakers so enthused about granting Iran nuclear capabilities, but so uneasy about standing firmly with General Sisi of Egypt?
  • How is it that America can continue to bend over backwards to kowtow to Saudi Arabia, but it refuses to expand our cooperative alliance with Jordan in our mutual fight against the Islamic State?

Kutilya was a brilliant man and a giant in Indian strategic culture. His legacy will undoubtedly continue to be felt–particularly on the subcontinent–for many centuries to come. Yet, he is a product of his times. Blindly applying one notion from his massive work is not strategic thinking. It’s cognitive dissonance.

Here’s a simple concept for American foreign policy: whenever possible, we deal directly and fully with likeminded regimes of similar cultural predilections. When such dealings are not possible, the U.S. must judiciously choose which nondemocratic states to deal with in order to further its strategic interests. Thus, a monarchy like Jordan will always be preferable to an Arab Socialist regime, such as Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party or Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite family in Syria. These Arab Socialist regimes very often are inimical to American strategic interests. Such regimes merely seek to use the United States and then return to the status quo whereby they wage covert warfare upon America, once their enemies have been vanquished with American assistance.

What are America’s strategic interests, in the case of the Mideast?

  1. Neutralization of the Wahhabī terror threat.
  2. Successful containment of Iran.
  3. Preservation of Israel.
  4. Protection of pro-American autocracies.

Why do we care to do this? Because if we continue permitting the jihadist elements to destabilize that region, the violence will spread to Europe and ultimately threaten Americans everywhere. This is the sad reality of the Middle East: it is truly the crossroads of civilization, which means ignoring it is not a viable option.

There are no saints in foreign policy and there certainly are no perfect countries. But, America must start taking seriously the types of regimes that they are seeking to get involved with. Furthermore, the U.S. must stop trotting out Kutilya each time it needs a simple justification for monumentally bad policymaking. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend and regime types really do matter. Let’s see if the Trump Administration figures this out before making a catastrophic mistake that we’ll be paying for the rest of our lives.


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