Just another street in Deir Ezzor, Syria. Photographer: Ahmad Aboud/AFP via Getty Images
Just another street in Deir Ezzor, Syria. Photographer: Ahmad Aboud/AFP via Getty Images

As the internecine wars intensify in the Middle East, pitting one terrorist group against another, I think of my good friend Robert Novak, the late conservative columnist.

More than three decades ago I took Bob, an avid sports fan, to a basketball game, Georgetown versus Virginia; he hated both teams. In the closing minutes of a tight game, with the crowd roaring, I asked him who he was cheering for: "It's like the battle of Stalingrad," he replied, comparing the contest to the battle in World War II between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, and wishing both sides could lose.

When we read reports of fighting in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, pitting al-Qaeda against Hezbollah, it arouses the same sentiment.

Both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have killed Americans. Al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, is a more visible villain in the U.S. Yet, to an extent, there is a proxy war in the region between Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran, and for decades Iran has been Enemy No. 1 for many Americans.

So there is a conundrum, and most Americans simply opt out of choosing between enemies. They don't care. It also isn't clear which side would cause more harm to our national interests or which side would be subject to moderating influences after prevailing.

Americans don't like to need a scorecard on foreign policy. World War II was easy: We hated our enemies, the Nazis and Japanese, and didn't worry much about our allies, the Russians and the Chinese. During the Cold War it was simple as well: We hated the Communists and didn't really care that some of our chosen allies were dreadful dictators as long as they were against the Communists. Today, without a clear line, the choice isn't logical for most Americans, who have far more pressing worries.

Of course, in reference to Stalingrad, my pal Bob Novak was wrong; it was much better that the Nazis lost.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)