Outside of those who majored American Lit or are otherwise major fans of Mark Twain, the name Charles Dudley Warner is likely to draw a blank. That is most unfortunate, for Warner (1829-1900) was a major Victorian-era travel writer and co-authored with Twain the marvelous 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. He was also a world-class epigrammatist. In fact, most every semi-literate person is familiar with at least two of his bons mots: "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it," and undoubtedly the most famous, "Politics makes strange bedfellows."
The notion of "strange bedfellows" is an old one. In The Tempest, Tranculo, a lecherous hunchback, has become shipwrecked. He finds himself alone; the sky is dark and threatening. He is frightened by a deafening thunder. In his deep anxiety, he spies a deformed monster -- Caliban -- and decides that perhaps for safety's sake, he should seek shelter next to him. And thus he says "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. . ."
Strange bedfellows: For Shakespeare, it was caused by misery; for Warner, politics. For the late Helen Thomas, its source was war. Thomas (1920-2013), the dean of White House correspondents was a realist. She knew, better than most that wars frequently cause enemies to become allies; to sheathe their swords for the nonce. And although it may be necessary, pragmatic or utile to band with one's adversary in the pursuit of a common foe, that relationship must of needs be far more a tethering or tacit understanding than a passionate embrace. Such "tethering" is not all that unusual. Remember Ms. Thomas' dictum: "Wars make strange bedfellows." Nonetheless, these sorts of arrangements are rarely discussed in polite company; in both love and war, there are certain things a gentleman -- or gentlewoman -- neither reveals nor speaks of in public.
Like the tacit alliance -- the "strange bedfellowship" -- between the United States and Iran.
For the past couple of months, a huge amount of international focus has been directed toward Iraq, where the transnational jihadist movement Islamic State (I.S. -- also called ISIS) has taken over huge areas of the country's Sunni-majority areas, have robbed and raped, kidnapped and beheaded -- all in the name of reestablishing the caliphate. With so much of the world's attention focused on the barbarity of the Islamic State and the ensuing American military response, one thing that has managed to fly beneath the radar has been the U.S.-Iranian cooperation against the terrorist group. As George Friedman, founder and chair of Stratfor Global Intelligence explained in a recent column, A convergence of interests, particularly concerning the Iraqi central and Kurdish regional governments, has made it necessary for Washington and Tehran to at least coordinate their actions. As essential as this "strange bedfellow" scenario may well be, it does not -- and likely will not -- obviate the mistrust and domestic opposition which have existed for years in both Washington and Tehran.
Remember the wisdom of Trinculo: "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."
This is not the first time the U.S. and Tehran have put aside their mutual enmity in order to cooperate against a common jihadist enemy. Shortly after 9/11, the two countries made common cause in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan. And despite President George W. Bush's referring to Iran as part of the "axis of evil" -- and the economic sanctions and the showdown over the country's nuclear ambitions -- the two came together again in 2003 in order to effect regime change in Iraq.
Of course in toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. did Iran a huge favor; Iraq had been its gravest national security threat. History will record that in order to oust Hussein, the U.S. partnered up with Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, both of whom had long been Irani proxies. As such, Iran had a hand in shaping the new Iraqi balance of power; a Shiite dominated state in which the Kurds had considerable autonomy. (Do remember that Iraq is one of only five Shiite-majority countries in the Muslim world and that despite this, Hussein and his henchmen were Sunnis.)
Throughout the years since Hussein's ouster and the creation of the new order, Iran and the U.S. have played a complex game that is part cooperation, part competition. At one point Tehran and Washington engaged in direct public talks about the future of Iraq's post-Baathist republic. More recently, Iran and the U.S. worked together behind the scenes to replace outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington and Tehran hold responsible for the political crisis in Iraq. Tehran and Washington have also been working together to ease tensions between the Shia and Sunnis, as well as between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region.
And now that the future stability of the new Haidir al-Abadi led Iraqi government is being threatened by ISIS, it should come as little surprise that the U.S. and Iran should resume their strange bedfellowship. Washington and Tehran -- Presidents Obama and Rouhani -- are well aware that the Islamic State poses a direct military threat to Iraq. They also understand that neither the Iraqi military nor the Kurdish peshmerga forces are in a position to fight back. Effective operations against the Islamic State will require Washington and Tehran to support their common allies in Iraq and engage in direct military action.
Although the Obama/al-Abadi/Rouhani bedfellowship is likely essential if the Islamic State is to be turned back, it is unlikely to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Between Washington and Tehran there is a ton of mistrust. As Stratfor's George Friedman succinctly notes, this mistrust " . . . limits the extent to which they can cooperate against the Islamic State -- especially in the areas of military and intelligence. Neither side wants to reveal its assets or processes to the other." Before too long, the bedfellowship will once again be sorely tested. This time the issue will be ISIS in Syria, where Washington's and Tehran's interests aren't going to align.
Then too, there is the issue of Bashir al-Assad, who has strong Irani backing. He is a murderous SOB. who, like his father, has gassed his own people; the question is, will he become our murderous SOB? As bad a dude as he is, we may well have to align ourselves with him for whatever amount of time it takes to decimate the Islamic State. When -- and if -- we do, hold your ears, because sure as God made little green apples, President Obama's none-too-loyal opposition will cry foul, accuse him of treason and claim that they've never heard of such a thing.
As rocker Stephen Stills put it years ago:
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you're with.
War certainly does make strange bedfellows. . .
Copyright ©2014 Kurt F. Stone