“America doesn’t have friends,” former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is reported to have once said. “America only has interests.” The same could certainly be said in reverse for all those with whom the U.S. has worked in Iraq, from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni nationalist politicians and Awakening fighters and the Kurds. All of these groups have cooperated to varying degrees with the Americans, but not because they shared the U.S. agenda for Iraq, much less in the wider Middle East. Instead, each group has used the U.S. presence as an opportunity to advance its own interests, engaging in tactical alliances with Washington in the hope of directing U.S. muscle against its foes in the intra-Iraqi power game. But where their own interests diverge with those of the U.S., they’re unlikely to oblige Washington. The same is true for those with whom the U.S. has partnered in Afghanistan, from President Hamid Karzai to Pakistan’s generals.
And yet in both cases, the U.S. has spent years trying in vain to persuade those proxies to do its bidding. To understand why Maliki won’t be more accommodating of the Sunnis or Pakistan won’t crack down on the Taliban, it may be more useful to base a policy on assuming they’ll act on the basis of their own interests, as they define them, rather than as we do.