WASHINGTON -- The increasing static in the air between Kabul and the White House brings to mind other dicey episodes in American diplomacy. Even dealing with allies can be tricky. Recall de Gaulle. He was heartburn for five American presidents. Even Churchill could be difficult, and he was half-American. Yet for Roosevelt and Truman he could be a trial, particularly when the question of the British Empire was on the table and the future of its colonies.
President Barack Obama's rows with President Hamid Karzai may not put you in mind of de Gaulle or the passing of the British Empire, but there is a troubling analogy, to wit: the Kennedys' treatment of the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. It did not end prettily. In the early days of the Vietnam conflict President John F. Kennedy was increasingly critical of Diem for his apparent ineptitude, corruption, and brutality. Our Ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, snubbed the South Vietnamese president. When word reached Washington that officers in the South Vietnamese army were going to overthrow Diem, the Kennedys pointedly looked the other way. The coup took place, and to the administration's embarrassment President Diem was not left an exile but a well-photographed corpse. His was to be the last stable South Vietnamese government. Sometimes foreigners know more about the governance of their countries than Americans do.
Is the Diem scenario to be the scenario for Afghanistan? The country is probably even more ungovernable than South Vietnam. It has never in modern times had a strong central government. There have always been rivalries and by our standards much corruption. From this backward country has emerged President Hamid Karzai, another difficult ally. It is not too soon to ask whether President Obama will handle him as his White House predecessors handled de Gaulle or as Diem was handled.
For several months the Obama administration has made it clear through leaks and public statements that it does not approve of Karzai's fraught election and his laxness in dealing with corruption. The consequence has been a growing hostility between Kabul and Washington that may now be reaching a crisis.
Though not very well reported, the crisis appears to have begun in early March when President Obama refused Karzai's request for a meeting in Washington. Karzai's response was to invite Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Kabul. There the Iranian in his trademark dirty windbreaker delivered a series of snipes at President Obama. Late in the month when President Obama visited Kabul on his whirlwind trip to visit our troops he did sit down with Karzai but then allowed it to be leaked worldwide that at his sententious best he treated Karzai to a lecture on the essentials of Good Government.
That indignity apparently provoked Karzai to let it be leaked that he has told Afghan colleagues that if the static continues between Washington and Kabul he might consider joining the Taliban! Not to be outdone, the administration through its spokesman Robert Gibbs has now let it be known that when Karzai arrives in Washington for a May 12 meeting he may not get to see President Obama. "We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes," said Gibbs, "as to whether it is constructive to have that meeting."
Readers of this column may recall that I had a little fun at Karzai's expense in February when I took exception to his demagoguery in parliament over the issue of Afghan civilians being killed by our troops. Usually they were put in harm's way by the Taliban. I also joked about an election monitoring board that Karzai packed with allies. "Hamid Karzai (D-Chicago)" I called him to make an obvious point.
After the column appeared I got a sobering call from a friend who had played a significant role in the Bush administration's conduct of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the call he/she reminded me that a change in leadership in those faraway parts does not necessarily end in improved leadership. Moreover, Karzai has achieved more than any of his rivals is likely to achieve towards peace and security in the region and with no evidence that he is himself corrupt.
Lay off, said my friend, and so I have. That picture I once beheld of Diem sobered me up too. I wonder if President Obama has seen it.
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