Such issues mean that Obama must make it clear to the American people that the US is engaging with possibly unsavory people merely as a way to guide events toward a positive outcome. His tactics may be morally uncertain but his goal must not be.
To be sure, not doing more to oust Mr. Assad has its own moral dilemma. More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Assad has had ample opportunity to step down. The US and other nations have backed numerous diplomatic initiatives. Now Obama seems ready to try “hold your nose” diplomacy by backing carefully selected rebels.
The US is hardly new to such morally ambiguous tactics. In 2005, the US worked with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq to end their support of Al Qaeda. Washington also engaged political leaders of the Irish Republican Army to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In 1980, the US voted to seat the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations. It held talks in 1995 with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic – in Ohio. Franklin Roosevelt had to deal with Joseph Stalin, and Richard Nixon with Mao Zedong.