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 future of the British Empire's colonies was on the table.
President Barack 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 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 own 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 always have 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 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.