Your enemy’s enemy is probably not your friend

The passing of Hugo Chavez has got me thinking about alliances of convenience. Alliances made on the basis of a mutual enemy rather than any real common ground.

He’s a controversial figure, is Chavez, and that’s putting it mildly. In the abstract it’s difficult to argue with a simple goal of improving living standards for the poor and diminishing the economic and political hegemony of one particular power. But life isn’t in the abstract. And in addition to the domestic rights abuses he’s accused of, Chavez made a point of courting anyone and everyone who shared his opposition to the US. If he cared at all for human beings, he must surely have had nightmares about some of the regimes he befriended and supported. Maybe he just thought that it was worth it. Maybe he should have learnt something from history, something his own untimely death has saved him from learning first hand.

Because alliances of convenience, as Stalin discovered, rarely last. It’s not likely that the arrangement is going to remain convenient for both parties indefinitely. But Molotov and Ribbentrop, surely, knew what they were dealing with. There was no pretence of any great friendship between the Nazis and the Soviets. They just had more pressing concerns. Similarly, I doubt the CIA and the Taleban, united against the Soviets 50 years later, ever convinced themselves they had much in common beyond that.

Governments still do all this, of course, and a lot more than Chavez did. The list of unsavoury regimes assisted, protected or even just left alone by the various NATO powers would be enough to turn Mr Happy into a cynic (and don’t think Russia and China aren’t at it, too). But the thing is, for the most part, our governments know what they’re dealing with. They see two evils and strike a bargain with what they think of as the lesser one. They’re always aware that they might have got it wrong after all, that the little viper they’ve caged might rise up and straighten out its coils and turn into the mother of all anacondas. They’re just looking at the odds and betting that won’t happen, hoping their friendship with the little viper will help squash the bigger one next door.

But pressure groups, “movements”, informal comings-together of like-minded individuals aren’t immune, either. More often than not they’ll strike up the same alliances (on a smaller, less unambiguously evil scale, to be sure), with none of the awareness. They’ll befriend their enemy’s enemy and convince themselves it’s the real deal. Their idealism about their own cause leaches through into their view of their new allies and suddenly all sins are forgotten, all statements misunderstood, all crimes justified.

The most obvious (and oft-cited) example of this is those left-leaning feminist groups who seek to identify with other segments of society they see as victims (and therefore enemies) of the very same hegemony they themselves are struggling against. Looking for fellow victims of oppression is, in and of itself, a natural and entirely praiseworthy tendency of the left. But in doing so, many’s the time such groups have found themselves allied with people and organisations who espouse and practice violence towards women on a scale that should, in isolation, have made them the enemies of the very groups now lending them praise, credibility and protection.

It’s not just the left, either. If you happen to stumble across a group who share your opposition to wind-farms, pause and check whether they’re also opposed to black people before you decide your mutual enemy makes you ideal bed-fellows.

Single-issue parties and groups don’t really exist any more. UKIP seems to be morphing into a quasi-countryside-alliance. Hezbollah are all about the welfare, apparently. But don’t be fooled. Don’t fall for the fig-leaf. Look at each cause, each politician, each movement or party in all their naked hideousness, and then only then make your decision.

Because if that decision is based on the sole fact that you hate the same thing, there’s a decent chance you’ll be ignoring something even more hateful in the person you’re about to get into bed with.

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