Echoes of Vietnam in a spat that only helps the Taliban.
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
The Wall Street Journal
APRIL 7, 2010
President Obama isn't faring too well at converting enemies to friends, but he does seem to have a talent for turning friends into enemies. The latest spectacle is the all-too-public and counterproductive war of words between the White House and our putative ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The only winner so far in this spat is the Taliban.
The Obama Administration seems to have had it out for Mr. Karzai from the day it took office, amid multiple reports based on obvious U.S. leaks that Vice President Joe Biden or some other official had told the Afghan leader to shape up. The tension escalated after Mr. Karzai's tainted but ultimately recognized re-election victory last year, and it reached the name-calling stage late last month when President Obama met Mr. Karzai on a trip to Kabul and the White House let the world know that the American had lectured the Afghan about his governing obligations.
European Pressphoto Agency
Afghan President Hamid Karzai
The public rebuke was a major loss of face for Mr. Karzai, who later returned fire at the U.S., reportedly even saying at a private meeting that if the Americans kept it up, he might join the Taliban. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs kept up the schoolyard taunts yesterday by suggesting that Mr. Obama might not meet with Mr. Karzai as scheduled in Washington on May 12.
"We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes, as to whether it is constructive to have that meeting," said Mr. Gibbs, in a show of disdain he typically reserves for House Republicans.
The kindest word for all of this is fiasco. American troops are risking their lives to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that requires winning popular support in Afghanistan, and the main message from America's Commander in Chief to the Afghan people is that their government can't be trusted. That ought to make it easier to win hearts and minds.
Mr. Karzai has been disappointing as a nation-builder, has tolerated corrupt officials and family members, and can be arrogant and crudely nationalistic. Presumably, however, Mr. Obama was well aware of these defects last year when he recognized the Afghan election results and then committed 20,000 more U.S. troops to the theater.
You go to war with the allies you have, and it's contrary to any diplomatic principle to believe that continuing public humiliation will make Mr. Karzai more likely to cooperate. On the evidence of the last week, such treatment has only given the Afghan leader more incentive to make a show of his political independence from the Americans.
All the more so given that Mr. Karzai has already heard Mr. Obama promise that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan as early as July 2011. This shouting spectacle will also embolden the Taliban, who after being run out of Marjah have every reason to tell the citizens of Kandahar that even the Americans don't like the Afghan government and are short-timers in any case.
This treatment of an ally eerily echoes the way the Kennedy Administration treated Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. On JFK's orders, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge refused to meet with Diem, and when U.S. officials got word of a coup against Diem they let it be known they would not interfere. Diem was executed, and South Vietnam never again had a stable government.
By contrast, President George W. Bush decided to support and work closely with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the 2007 U.S. military surge in Iraq. The Maliki government was sectarian and sometimes incompetent, and some of its officials were no doubt corrupt, but Mr. Bush understood that the larger goal was to defeat al Qaeda and to stabilize the country. From FDR to Reagan, Presidents of both parties have had to tolerate allied leaders of varying talents and unsavory qualities in the wartime pursuit of more important foreign-policy goals.
Coming on the heels of the U.S. public chastisement of Israel's government, the larger concern over the Karzai episode is what it reveals about Mr. Obama's diplomatic frame of mind. With adversaries, he is willing to show inordinate patience, to the point of muffling his objections when opposition blood ran in the streets of Tehran. With allies, on the other hand, the President is unforgiving and insists they follow his lead or face his public wrath. The result will be that our foes fear us less, and that we have fewer friends.