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Karzai’s New Best Friends

A little over a week ago, Spencer Ackerman wrote:

After all, is there any foreign leader once held closely by the U.S. that Obama has more visibly snubbed than Hamid Karzai? The Obama team’s Afghanistan strategy can be fairly-if-simplistically described as a broad attempt to circumvent Karzai by bolstering Afghan institutions at and especially below the national level. There’s no shortage of outrage by Karzai over being denied so cosmetic a gesture as a White House visit until he does X, Y and Z. And this is a guy whose government is both perilously weak and has powerful impact over what will soon be about 140,000 U.S. and allied troops. So where’s the Karzai Kaucus on the right? Why don’t we see Sarah Palin on Facebook stickin’ up for our Afghan friend’s right to exercise his sovereignty and govern his country as his people have sort-of elected him to see fit?

As it turns out, Karzai’s defenders were just a little late to get started, but now they can’tstop talking. Adding Karzai to the list as one of the many allied leaders Obama has supposedly insulted and betrayed was only a matter of time. It fits into the preposterous framing of an Obama foreign policy of “coddling our enemies while alienating allies,” as Palin put it, but as soon as one pays any attention to U.S. interests and objectives in the regions where these so-called betrayals have occurred the framing completely collapses.

One way of replying to the Cheney/Palin criticism is to give the answer Ackerman offered last week:

When stated that way, the answer is fairly obvious: Karzai gets a lot of economic, security and political assistance from the U.S. while inconsistently demonstrating his commitment to ostensibly mutual goals of good governance that are important for U.S. interests in the region. An American administration that didn’t press Karzai would be a negligent steward of those interests. The fact of the U.S.-Afghan closeness just strengthens the case for candor and firmness — not high-handedness, certainly, but urgency.

From the administration’s perspective, recalcitrant allies that are resisting the U.S. over issues that the administration believes are essential to the success of American policy in their regions of the world are harming both U.S. and allied interests in the long term. So the administration is trying to goad, pressure or otherwise push these allies to cooperate. In other cases, such as the scrapped missile defense plan, Washington was actually doing Poland and the Czech Republic a favor by not making them a primary target of Russian animus.

The difficulty we face in Afghanistan is one that Leon Hadar outlined in his column applying the idea of moral hazard to foreign policy: allies that believe themselves to be important for achieving U.S. goals in their regions and therefore take U.S. backing for granted act with impunity and often act in reckless, destructive or short-sighted ways. The allies reap the benefits, such as they are, while the U.S. will bear the costs of the actions and risks the allies take.

Dr. Hadar described the hazard this way:

Indeed, while Americans have been considering the moral hazard of their government bailing-out the American International Group (AIG) and other irresponsible risk-takers in Wall Street, they could also have pondered the way American global intervention in support for foreign governments and groups tends to encourage them to engage in risky behavior — Georgia provoking a conflict with Russia; Pakistan supporting radical Islamists; Israel building-up settlements in the West Bank — whose costs end-up being paid by American soldiers and taxpayers, and could therefore be considered a case of moral hazard.

The most recent example has been the decision by President Barack Obama to escalate the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the Obama administration’s announcement of a timeline for a start of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, America’s top client there, the government led by Hamid Karzai, concluded that Washington was making an open-ended commitment to maintain U.S. military presence in the AfPak region.

While administration critics are satisfied with descriptions of Karzai’s bruised feelings and resentment, we can better understand Karzai’s latest outbursts as evidence of his belief that the U.S. needs him more than he needs the U.S. Indeed, the “poor” treatment of Karzai is what in another context Obama’s critics might call an attempt to ensure some accountability. The commitment in Afghanistan isn’t unconditional and it isn’t open-ended, and the “poor” treatment of Karzai has been an attempt to make that clear to him while also working around him when necessary. Now that Karzai is trying to compel Washington to be more accommodating and solicitous by making very loud public protests, he is finding allies in hawks here at home who seem to wish Obama to adopt the approach of the previous administration, which consisted of paying Karzai a great deal of attention while letting Afghanistan fall apart. These are the people who are always game for another troop escalation wherever and whenever (and they are usually keen to relax the rules of engagement, too), but they seem to have no patience for any of the political and diplomatic legwork needed to complement and consolidate the security gains made by the additional forces. Their newfound concern for Karzai’s contentment should be viewed in this light.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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