Media Criticism

"A Necessary, If Still Unpalatable, Potential Ally in Combating the Islamic State"

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, April 2, 2015, 9:07 AM

Remember these words the next time the New York Times runs a pious editorial decrying---with a spurious combination of selective facts and distorted law---some morally complicated aspect of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Remember them the next time the New York Times runs an editorial invoking the great moral authority of the paper of record on, well, just about anything.

Remember them because the quotation, which appears in the last paragraph of today's editorial, "The Crimes of Terrorists," is---astonishingly, really---how the New York Times editorial page describes the genocidal Syrian dictator, Bashar Al-Assad.

The Times has suggested before that the United States might have to "live with" Assad. But living with someone and considering him any kind of an ally are very different things. And it wasn't long ago that the Times was rightly fretting about the moral quandary of helping Assad by fighting common enemies. An editorial back in September entitled, "Wrong Turn on Syria: Helping Assad?" showed none of today's sudden realpolitik:

From the night Mr. Obama spoke about the possibility of attacking the Islamic State in Syria, it has not been clear how the administration could prevent such action from bolstering the Assad regime, which counts ISIS as its enemy.

“There is no plan to have any coordination whatsoever with the Assad regime,” a deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters on Tuesday. And Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the chief of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that he “wouldn’t characterize the effects we had last night as benefiting Assad.” But direct coordination is a moot point if the attacks solidify Mr. Assad’s grip on power, providing his forces time to focus resources and energies on attacking Western-backed rebel groups in contested areas.

Mr. Obama’s inadequate answer to this conundrum on Tuesday was that he would “ramp up our effort to train and equip the Syrian opposition, who are the best counterweight to ISIL and the Assad regime.” But building up a rebel force that can take on the Sunni extremists as well as Mr. Assad’s forces could take years, assuming the strategy works.

Well, the Times has apparently gotten over its scruples faster than I have. It doesn't today merely think we should live with Assad for now. It doesn't merely tacitly accept that our actions may bolster his position. It regard him as an ally---albeit an ally with some modifying adjectives like "unpalatable" and "potential" attached. In truth, however, the only adjective that really matters here is the first one: "necessary." The others are just palliatives to make the editorial board feel better about its moral choice to align itself with a man responsible for an estimated 200,000 dead Syrians, the physical destruction of one of the world's oldest civilizations, and the world's largest refugee crisis.

It's a good thing the Times is keeping the faith about the dangers of NSA surveillance, the moral necessity of closing Guantanamo, the crucial importance of accountability in drone strikes, and the urgency of a laser-like focus on CIA interrogations that took place more than a decade ago.

After all, some principles, even if not genocide, brook no compromise.