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Obama and Karzai play nice

President Obama’s meeting today with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a touching piece of theater. The real message, I thought, was that Obama and Karzai have realized they are stuck with each other: They have no alternative for now but to maintain their alliance of convenience.

The mistake the administration made with Karzai during Obama’s lightning visit in March and earlier encounters was to think that a public tongue-lashing would produce results from this weak and ineffective leader. Such “in-your-face” diplomacy is almost always unsuccessful, especially in parts of the world where dignity is so precious and public humiliation so damaging.

The culprit in the Karzai case was Gen. Jim Jones, who briefed reporters on his way to Afghanistan with Obama about how he was going to give Karzai an earful. But similar mistakes have been made by Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who popped off in public about the perfidy of Pakistan’s spy service, and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, who had public spats with Karzai and some Pakistani officials. They should know better.

Diplomats who know Karzai well stress that his style is quintessentially tribal and conspiratorial -- traits that have been honed by Afghanistan’s history over the past three decades, when trusting the good intentions of foreigners was not a healthy bet. It was almost inevitable that Karzai would react to public criticism in such a mercurial way, denouncing America and threatening to join the Taliban.

As one diplomat observed some weeks before the Afghan leader’s visit: “When Karzai feels he is on the defense, he goes into a defensive crouch. If we want him on our side, we have to convince him that we are in this together.”

That’s the sort of advice that finally seems to have gotten through to the Obama team: Given that they have no alternative to working with Karzai, whom we have proclaimed the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, the best approach is to stroke him in public -- all the better in an elaborate East Wing press conference. Save any criticisms for private meetings.

Not an ideal relationship, certainly, but for the moment a necessary one. Wednesday’s make-nice performance reminded me of the comment by humorist Wynn Catlin: “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”

By David Ignatius  | May 12, 2010; 6:21 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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It says a lot about how far the country has to go to get where they can be their own country. They've gone too long with constant war, its hurt their society a lot. The Taliban is just another evil for these folks.

Posted by: Nymous | May 12, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

What amazes me is that corrupt Karzai is being treated like a dignitary while Netanyahu was treated as an unwelcome guest. Open hand -- Muslim countries who want to obliterate us; clenched fist -- a democratic allie that has fought for its survival from its beginning.

Congratulations, Pres. Obama, while your supporters continue to use racism as an argument, you are encouraging anti-semitism. From some of the posts I've seen, it is definitely on the rise.

Posted by: bethg1841 | May 13, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Obama created the Karzai mess by openly criticizing him and threatening him. Now he is trying to play "make-up". Obama should never have treated Israel the way that he did. His foreign policy is awful.

Posted by: joanz3 | May 13, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

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