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.
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 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Kabul. There the Iranian, in his trademark dirty jacket, 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 had 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 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," Gibbs said, "as to whether that's constructive to have such a 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 likely would achieve toward peace and security in the region, with no evidence that he himself is corrupt.
Lay off, my friend said, so I have. That picture I once beheld of Diem sobered me up, too. I wonder whether President Obama has seen it.