- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010


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 Charles de Gaulle. He was heartburn for five American presidents. Even Winston Churchill could be difficult, and he was half-American. He could be a trial for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, particularly when the question of the British Empire and the future of its colonies was on the table.

President Obama’s rows with Afghan 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 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, 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 Mr. Karzai, another difficult ally. It is not too soon to ask whether Mr. 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 Mr. Karzai’s fraught election and his laxness in dealing with corruption. The consequence has been a growing hostility between Kabul and Washington that may be reaching a crisis.

Though not very well reported, the crisis appears to have begun in early March when Mr. Obama refused Mr. Karzai’s request for a meeting in Washington. Mr. 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 Mr. Obama. Late in the month, when Mr. Obama visited Kabul on his whirlwind trip to visit our troops, he sat down with Mr. Karzai but then allowed it to be leaked worldwide that at his sententious best, he treated Mr. Karzai to a lecture on the essentials of good government.

That indignity apparently provoked Mr. 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 spokesman Robert Gibbs, has let it be known that when Mr. Karzai arrives in Washington for a May 12 meeting, he may not get to see Mr. Obama. “We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes,” Mr. Gibbs said, “as to whether it is constructive to have that meeting.”

Readers of this column may recall that I had a little fun at Mr. 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 Mr. Karzai packed with allies. “Hamid Karzai, Chicago Democrat,” 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 George W. Bush administration’s conduct of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the call, he reminded me that a change in leadership in those faraway parts does not necessarily end in improved leadership. Moreover Mr. Karzai has achieved more than any of his rivals is likely to achieve toward 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, too. I wonder if Mr. Obama has seen it.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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