The Obama administration claims “its problems with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be a thing of the past.” Count me as skeptical.
I am encouraged that the administration says that Karzai’s visit to Washington — which they had publicly considered calling off after the Afghan president made some unfortunate comments denigrating the U.S. and the UN — is now definitely on for May 10-14. But while Karzai is in the U.S., the administration will have to display superhuman strength to avoid its default impulse with Karzai, which is to treat him like a distant, embarrassing relative with some repulsive habits (he smokes! he smells! he dresses funny!) that you just have to let him know about “for his own good.” Few appreciate this kind of treatment, and Karzai is no exception. In fact, it tends to send him around the bend, which in turn triggers disparaging comments from administration officials that only exacerbate the situation.
Granted, he has massive failings, notably his complicity in corruption and general thuggery. But browbeating him doesn’t make him improve; it only makes him more defensive and drives him further into the arms of his disreputable warlord allies. The Obama administration needs to swallow its pride and adopt the Bush approach — smother wayward allies like Karzai and Maliki in a bear hug. Hold them close, and then, once you’ve won their confidence, gently push them to do better.