Obama’s Opposite-ism

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most well-sourced reporters covering national security, and his front page story in today’s paper on the new U.S. approach to Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government reveals a great deal about how the Obama White House works.

As President Obama nears a decision on how many more troops he will dispatch to Afghanistan, his top diplomats and generals are abandoning for now their get-tough tactics with Karzai and attempting to forge a far warmer relationship. They recognize that their initial strategy may have done more harm than good, fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.

Note that President Bush was well aware of the need to reassure Karzai. As Chandrasekaran reported in May, the new administration had an extremely dismissive attitude regarding Bush’s decision to maintain a close working relationship with the Afghan president. Incredibly, the new vice president essentially insulted Karzai to his face.

If you’re looking for good Afghanistan coverage, I strongly recommend Peter Feaver’s posts at Shadow Government and, for a left-leaning perspective, Spencer Ackerman’s reporting at The Washington Independent. Feaver, political scientist at Duke, served in the Bush White House, and he offers impressively dispassionate, objective assessments. And though I find plenty to disagree with in Ackerman’s take on foreign and defense policy, he has a keen understanding of evolving debates within the Obama administration and the wider Democratic foreign policy community.

Ten days before Obama’s inauguration, Karzai told Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a private meeting in Kabul that he looked forward to building with Obama the same sort of chummy relationship he had with Bush, which included frequent videoconferences and personal visits.

“Well, it’s going to be different,” Biden replied, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “You’ll probably talk to him or see him a couple of times a year. You’re not going to be talking to him every week.”

Furthermore, Karzai’s request for a bilateral summit was rebuffed in favor of a meeting that also included the newly elected Pakistani president. This is despite the fact that Obama’s advisors recognized that Karzai was the likely victor in the coming presidential elections. Interestingly, the Obama strategy was to work through governors and other officials based outside of Kabul deemed more pliable. One can imagine how President Obama would feel if, say, right-of-center European leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated directly with the governors of Utah and Texas over matters of shared concern. Granted, the situations are far from directly analagous. But if you believe that strengthening Afghanistan’s civilian government is worth doing, and if you believe that warlordism is a bad thing, propping up our own “progressive” warlords isn’t terribly constructive.

The consequences of this behavior were entirely predictable, but the Obama administration is only coming to terms with this now, after a paranoid and defensive Karzai engaged in ballot-stuffing and other short-sighted decision that have badly undermined the legitimacy of his government.

Although there is broad agreement among Obama’s national security team that Karzai has been an ineffective leader, a growing number of top officials have begun to question in recent months whether those actions wound up goading him into doing exactly what the White House did not want: forging alliances with former warlords, letting drug traffickers out of prison and threatening to sack competent ministers. Those U.S. officials now think that Karzai, a tactically shrewd tribal chieftain who is under enormous stress as he seeks to placate and balance rival factions in his government, may operate best when he does not feel besieged.

This would be funny if it weren’t so depressing. The decision to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Karzai was totally coherent and almost plausible, if you didn’t think about it for very long. But one wonders why Obama’s advisors didn’t lend more credence to the counterfactual: though there were undoubtedly discomfiting aspects to the Bush approach, what if it were nevertheless vastly preferable to the alternative? We now have our answer.

When then-Senator Obama was asked about his decision to oppose the Bush administration’s surge strategy, he noted, reasonably in my view, that his strategy of withdrawal plus aggressive regional diplomacy hadn’t been tried, and that it was entirely possible that this strategy would have yielded even better results. Many critics felt that Obama’s refusal to seriously contemplate the possibility that he was in error was a discouraging sign. My worry is that at least some of Obama’s advisors are driven by a crude opposite-ism: if the Bush White House did it, surely it must be wrong. I think this also applies to the frankly bizarre decision to try KSM in a civilian court in New York city — as though we’ve treated him as a common criminal thus far. Ross Douthat has written an excellent post on this subject at his new blog.

I’ll also note that during the early days of the Bush administration, relations with Clinton staffers weren’t exactly cordial, and there was a similar retreat from everything the previous administration had done. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Clinton foreign policy, but there’s something to the idea that politics should end at the water’s edge. Republican policymakers have been at fault as well. But the Bush years were akin to the Truman administration, when we confronted a new threat, or rather an old threat that had become far more potent. The 9/11 terror attacks forced a broad rethinking of the national security environment. It stands to reason that the transition should have involved close cooperation, including extensive conversations regarding the logic behind efforts to reassure and strengthen Karzai. The problem, of course, is that Obama had run against a caricature of the Bush foreign policy, and having demonized his predecessor he was, it seems, incapable of acknowledging his accomplishments. 

The Obama administration seems to have come around to see the wisdom of Bush’s decision to maintain a close working relationship with Karzai. The trouble is that it might be too late; a great deal of damage has already been done. I’m struck by the fact that Chandrasekaran published this story now, with the president’s Asia trip still fresh in mind. American relations with the great powers of East and South Asia improved dramatically, and even protectionist gestures over the last few months haven’t been enough to undo that. Perhaps this has led to a new humility on the part of the president. We can hope.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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