Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Obama’s Karzai Miscalculation

With the relationship between the American and Afghan presidents in tatters, it’s worth noting just how far back Barack Obama’s mishandling of Hamid Karzai goes. This revealing Washington Post article from May 6, 2009 relates a story about a meeting between the two men in July of 2008, when Obama was still a presidential candidate.

Karzai was fairly obsequious and Obama was mistrustful. The former talked up progress in Afghanistan and offered, “I’m at your disposal, Senator Obama.” Yet, “Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel recalled. He ‘was not taken in,’ Hagel said, ‘by all of the happy talk.’”

Which is to Obama’s credit. But surely there was a productive way to exploit the Afghan president’s declaration of obedience. Karzai might well have been embellishing, but if Obama was truly interested in a fresh start in Afghanistan he could scarcely have hoped for a better opening. Instead, once he was elected, he threw Karzai’s offer back in his face:

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.”

It’s hard to make a sensible person feel bad for Hamid Karzai, but the above exchange just about does the trick. There is no question that Obama was working what he thought of as an effective angle to bring accountability to a deeply problematic government. But there is also no question that this approach was informed by a reactive dismissal of everything George W. Bush did during his time in office. According to the Post, “Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

But accountability cannot simply be demanded. It must be cleverly finagled. And so, things devolved steadily, while Karzai struggled to save face in his own country. Obama rarely dealt with him and the White House rejected his request for a bilateral meeting in Washington.  The Afghan president acknowledged the tension in the relationship but claimed, “the fundamentals are strong and steady.” At the same time, administration figures, most notably, special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was pushing for Afghans to challenge Karzai in the then-upcoming elections.

Of course, since the Post story, things have gone from bad to worse. Last December, when Obama announced that some 30,000 additional U.S. forces would be heading to Afghanistan, he diluted his message of support with a vow to pull out in 18 months. This itself constituted a new and potent disaster, quite apart from all the snubbing. For the only thing that keeps leaders on America’s side in that part of the world is the assurance that we are all in and there for the duration. Sunni sheiks in Iraq would not have dreamed of joining up with Americans against al Qaeda unless they knew we weren’t leaving prematurely. That reasoning now risks an Afghan-style inversion. Karzai wouldn’t make noise about joining the Taliban unless he had doubts about America’s willingness to outlast them.

On top of Obama’s mixed message, the administration leaked that Karzai’s brother was a drug dealer and then publicly—and impotently—berated Karzai about the non-transparent elections that returned him to power.

The point here is not that Karzai is a paragon of trustworthiness and good governance. He is a very flawed and, in some ways, compromised figure. The issue is how best to keep him from actively obstructing our mission and how to lay the foundation for a genuine tilt toward a stable and accountable representative government in Afghanistan. That’s achieved first by backing up a rock-solid commitment to defeat the Taliban and staying on for institution building. At the same time, Karzai should be intelligently coerced in private, not undermined in public.

For a president who has invested so much in style over substance, and dwelled so incessantly on the virtues of listening over dictating, Obama has achieved a strikingly ill conceived tone on Karzai. What’s more his penchant for the perfect compromise has not served him well on Afghanistan. We cannot at once be committed to fighting and winding down the same war. Nor can we treat a partner as both an ally and an antagonist. For all Obama’s talk of Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, the president could learn a few things from his predecessor.

With the relationship between the American and Afghan presidents in tatters, it’s worth noting just how far back Barack Obama’s mishandling of Hamid Karzai goes. This revealing Washington Post article from May 6, 2009 relates a story about a meeting between the two men in July of 2008, when Obama was still a presidential candidate.

Karzai was fairly obsequious and Obama was mistrustful. The former talked up progress in Afghanistan and offered, “I’m at your disposal, Senator Obama.” Yet, “Obama voiced concern that the situation was worse than Karzai had acknowledged, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel recalled. He ‘was not taken in,’ Hagel said, ‘by all of the happy talk.’”

Which is to Obama’s credit. But surely there was a productive way to exploit the Afghan president’s declaration of obedience. Karzai might well have been embellishing, but if Obama was truly interested in a fresh start in Afghanistan he could scarcely have hoped for a better opening. Instead, once he was elected, he threw Karzai’s offer back in his face:

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.”

It’s hard to make a sensible person feel bad for Hamid Karzai, but the above exchange just about does the trick. There is no question that Obama was working what he thought of as an effective angle to bring accountability to a deeply problematic government. But there is also no question that this approach was informed by a reactive dismissal of everything George W. Bush did during his time in office. According to the Post, “Obama advisers believe the relationship that Bush developed with Karzai masked the Afghan leader’s flaws and made it difficult to demand accountability.”

But accountability cannot simply be demanded. It must be cleverly finagled. And so, things devolved steadily, while Karzai struggled to save face in his own country. Obama rarely dealt with him and the White House rejected his request for a bilateral meeting in Washington.  The Afghan president acknowledged the tension in the relationship but claimed, “the fundamentals are strong and steady.” At the same time, administration figures, most notably, special envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was pushing for Afghans to challenge Karzai in the then-upcoming elections.

Of course, since the Post story, things have gone from bad to worse. Last December, when Obama announced that some 30,000 additional U.S. forces would be heading to Afghanistan, he diluted his message of support with a vow to pull out in 18 months. This itself constituted a new and potent disaster, quite apart from all the snubbing. For the only thing that keeps leaders on America’s side in that part of the world is the assurance that we are all in and there for the duration. Sunni sheiks in Iraq would not have dreamed of joining up with Americans against al Qaeda unless they knew we weren’t leaving prematurely. That reasoning now risks an Afghan-style inversion. Karzai wouldn’t make noise about joining the Taliban unless he had doubts about America’s willingness to outlast them.

On top of Obama’s mixed message, the administration leaked that Karzai’s brother was a drug dealer and then publicly—and impotently—berated Karzai about the non-transparent elections that returned him to power.

The point here is not that Karzai is a paragon of trustworthiness and good governance. He is a very flawed and, in some ways, compromised figure. The issue is how best to keep him from actively obstructing our mission and how to lay the foundation for a genuine tilt toward a stable and accountable representative government in Afghanistan. That’s achieved first by backing up a rock-solid commitment to defeat the Taliban and staying on for institution building. At the same time, Karzai should be intelligently coerced in private, not undermined in public.

For a president who has invested so much in style over substance, and dwelled so incessantly on the virtues of listening over dictating, Obama has achieved a strikingly ill conceived tone on Karzai. What’s more his penchant for the perfect compromise has not served him well on Afghanistan. We cannot at once be committed to fighting and winding down the same war. Nor can we treat a partner as both an ally and an antagonist. For all Obama’s talk of Bush’s failures in Afghanistan, the president could learn a few things from his predecessor.

Read Less

The Legion of the Disappointed

Labor bosses are joining the ranks of the grumpy Obama backers who have come to discover that all their millions and all their boosterism have gotten them precious little. The New York Times has even figured it out:

The nation’s union leaders said on Tuesday that they were “appalled” at remarks made by President Obama condoning the mass firing of teachers at a Rhode Island high school. Coming the day after union presidents sharply complained to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over stubbornly high unemployment, stagnant wages and the administration’s failure to do more to create jobs, the statement — voicing a rare vehemence toward a Democratic president — underlined the disillusionment of an important Democratic constituency. Because unions have been so crucial to the Democrats election after election, political experts say labor’s ambivalence, or worse, toward the Democrats could greatly deepen that party’s woes this fall.

Big Labor, we are told by Charlie Cook, is “very disappointed, whether it’s about card check or the effort to tax Cadillac health plans. … They’re really disillusioned. I think one by one unions will start getting engaged and helping out the Democrats, but it could be half-hearted.” For some $200M or more that they spent electing Obama, not to mention millions for Democratic congressional candidates, labor bosses thought they’d get something. Card check? Nope. Jobs? Not unless you count the two car companies Obama rescued. A sweetheart deal on health care? Unlikely. (But before the Obami fret too much, it seems that union bosses are still willing to pony up $53M of their members’ dues to help save the Democrats in Congress.)

Even if union bosses threw more millions into the Democratic coffers, the question remains whether they really can get their members engaged on behalf of a president and a Congress that has done so little for them. After all, union households went for Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Nor is Big Labor the only aggrieved member of the Democratic coalition:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats face problems among much of their base. Women’s groups are angry that some Democrats are pushing new restrictions on abortion as part of the health care overhaul. Many Hispanic groups are upset that Mr. Obama has not pressed for immigration reform this year. And gay and lesbian groups are unhappy he has not ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a military policy.

Hmm. So union leaders and members, liberal women, gays, and Hispanics, plus independents, fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy-establishment types, business groups, and Tea Party protesters have all had it with Obama. Some are angry because he’s proved to be ineffectual in pushing their liberal agenda, while others are miffed to discover that he’s, in fact, a statist (albeit incompetent) liberal.

Any president is bound to disappoint some supporters, but this one has disappointed more than his share. Granted, once the blank slate Obama maintained during the campaign was finally written on, some of the deluded Obamaphiles were bound to be disappointed. For those who fell for the candidate who promised to go line-by-line through the budget and pledged not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons, there’s a queasy realization that they were snowed. And for those like Big Labor who overestimated Obama’s ability to get their wish list fulfilled, there’s an awakening that they too were had. They thought they were getting a transformational president. Right now they’d settle for a minimally competent one.

Not all of the Obama-miffed will stay home or vote Republican. But many will. And if it’s a wave election, sweeping in Republican majorities or near-majorities in both houses, Obama may yet prove to be transformational. In just a couple of years he will have fundamentally altered the political landscape and shaken apart the Democratic coalition that was essential to his victory. Not the transformation he had in mind, of course.

Labor bosses are joining the ranks of the grumpy Obama backers who have come to discover that all their millions and all their boosterism have gotten them precious little. The New York Times has even figured it out:

The nation’s union leaders said on Tuesday that they were “appalled” at remarks made by President Obama condoning the mass firing of teachers at a Rhode Island high school. Coming the day after union presidents sharply complained to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over stubbornly high unemployment, stagnant wages and the administration’s failure to do more to create jobs, the statement — voicing a rare vehemence toward a Democratic president — underlined the disillusionment of an important Democratic constituency. Because unions have been so crucial to the Democrats election after election, political experts say labor’s ambivalence, or worse, toward the Democrats could greatly deepen that party’s woes this fall.

Big Labor, we are told by Charlie Cook, is “very disappointed, whether it’s about card check or the effort to tax Cadillac health plans. … They’re really disillusioned. I think one by one unions will start getting engaged and helping out the Democrats, but it could be half-hearted.” For some $200M or more that they spent electing Obama, not to mention millions for Democratic congressional candidates, labor bosses thought they’d get something. Card check? Nope. Jobs? Not unless you count the two car companies Obama rescued. A sweetheart deal on health care? Unlikely. (But before the Obami fret too much, it seems that union bosses are still willing to pony up $53M of their members’ dues to help save the Democrats in Congress.)

Even if union bosses threw more millions into the Democratic coffers, the question remains whether they really can get their members engaged on behalf of a president and a Congress that has done so little for them. After all, union households went for Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Nor is Big Labor the only aggrieved member of the Democratic coalition:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats face problems among much of their base. Women’s groups are angry that some Democrats are pushing new restrictions on abortion as part of the health care overhaul. Many Hispanic groups are upset that Mr. Obama has not pressed for immigration reform this year. And gay and lesbian groups are unhappy he has not ended “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a military policy.

Hmm. So union leaders and members, liberal women, gays, and Hispanics, plus independents, fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy-establishment types, business groups, and Tea Party protesters have all had it with Obama. Some are angry because he’s proved to be ineffectual in pushing their liberal agenda, while others are miffed to discover that he’s, in fact, a statist (albeit incompetent) liberal.

Any president is bound to disappoint some supporters, but this one has disappointed more than his share. Granted, once the blank slate Obama maintained during the campaign was finally written on, some of the deluded Obamaphiles were bound to be disappointed. For those who fell for the candidate who promised to go line-by-line through the budget and pledged not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons, there’s a queasy realization that they were snowed. And for those like Big Labor who overestimated Obama’s ability to get their wish list fulfilled, there’s an awakening that they too were had. They thought they were getting a transformational president. Right now they’d settle for a minimally competent one.

Not all of the Obama-miffed will stay home or vote Republican. But many will. And if it’s a wave election, sweeping in Republican majorities or near-majorities in both houses, Obama may yet prove to be transformational. In just a couple of years he will have fundamentally altered the political landscape and shaken apart the Democratic coalition that was essential to his victory. Not the transformation he had in mind, of course.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.