While Franklin Roosevelt may not have said that Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza "may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch," he probably thought it—just as other presidents have had similar thoughts about myriad brutal rulers. So if the U.S. government has forced the American people to support useful dictators, why is it trying to overthrow Syria's brutal president, Bashar al-Assad, whose enemies—Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) and the Islamic State (the ambitious al-Qaeda offshoot)—are also self-proclaimed enemies of America?
This question merits discussion in the establishment media, yet instead of discussion we get a parade of retired generals and CIA analysts, along with terrorism "experts," who insist that to defeat the Islamic State the U.S. government must end the Syrian civil war by ousting Assad. (That's a responsibility for the U.S. government?) In light of the catastrophic U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya, isn't Assad's overthrow more likely to help the violent jihadist groups, principally the Islamic State? After all, in 2012 the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged that American, Turkish, and Gulf state attempts to isolate Assad were leading to a radical caliphate.
To put this into a larger context, it's worth noting that the U.S government worked with Assad in the past. Syria was one of many countries to which the George W. Bush administration outsourced torture services in its "war on terror." Outsourcing torture has a negative ring to it, so the administration called it extraordinary rendition (just as torture became enhanced interrogation). In a sense, then, Assad was our son of a bitch when the U.S. government needed him. Then he outlived his usefulness.
Why? The short answer is Iran.
The longer answer is that the U.S. government has been willing to play footsie with violent anti-Western jihadist organizations in order to undermine regimes it does not like. It used jihadists against secular pan-Arab regimes, such as Nasser's in Egypt, and it did the same against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan—attracting Osama bin-Laden. (Jimmy Carter's national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski bragged about it.)
Post-9/11, the U.S. government has tilted toward violent jihadist organizations in order to harm Iran and its friends. But overthrowing Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who had suppressed the Shia Muslim majority, predictably brought an Iran-friendly regime to power in Iraq, and the American military enabled Shia militias to rid Baghdad of Sunnis. Thus Bush's neoconservative brain trust had no reason to support regime change in Iraq unless Iran and its friends Assad and Hezbollah in Lebanon were next on the hit list. And they were.
With Saddam out of the picture, the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel could warn of the menacing "Shia Crescent" from Tehran to southern Lebanon (plus Yemen). Saudi Arabia, home of Sunni Wahhabism (the ideology of bin Ladenites), hates the reemergence of Shia rival Iran as a major regional power, and Israel wants, among other things, to undermine Hezbollah, which protects southern Lebanon from invasion and ate Israel's lunch in 2006. So Saudi Arabia, its Gulf partners, and Turkey (which wants to defeat the U.S.-backed Kurds) help violent jihadists against Assad (the moderate opposition was known to be a "fantasy"; the Assad opposition was violent from the start), while Israel and the U.S. government also weaken Assad while conducting covert war and facilitating terrorism against Iran. (The Iranian nuclear program is a bogus part of this campaign. Israel is the nuclear monopolist in the region.)
Iran is portrayed as being on the march to regional conquest (or beyond), but that's ridiculous. It, like Russia (another neocon bogeyman), has long been Assad's Shia ally, the Houthi movement in Yemen has little to do with Iran, and Hezbollah arose against Israeli brutality in Lebanon. Assad's secular regime (like his father's) has not bothered Israel even though the self-identified Jewish state annexed Syria's Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 war. But being an ally of Iran and Hezbollah is enough for Israel to want to destabilize Syria.
All this adds up to an American, Saudi, Turkish, and Israeli preference for violent Sunni jihadists, the sort of people who attacked the Twin Towers and Paris, as the lesser evil—regardless of what Obama, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton say about the Islamic State.
This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.