04.12.10

Bring on Hillary

It's time to end the sleazy whispering campaign against Karzai—and empower Hillary Clinton, America's best hope to salvage relations with Afghanistan.

These are troubled times in Afghanistan, and when Hamid Karzai talks to America his turbaned head must spin like the blazes, for he confronts a cast of interlocutors that is daunting in its numbers and inquisitorial in its temper.

Who are President Karzai’s inquisitors? Well, there’s Barack Obama for starters, who owns the Good War, and Joe Biden, who dabbles in it; there’s Robert Gates, the Defense secretary, whose department oversees the theater; Jim Jones, the national security adviser; Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Mr. Fix-It for AfPak, who sees himself as Gulliver in Lilliput; Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, a man not without a viceregal itch; and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commands U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

She has a fine grasp of the difference between diplomacy and bluster, and shutting her out of much of the main AfPak action has been a major—even calamitous—mistake.

Oh… and there’s Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, cut out from much of the formal AfPak script but itching for action in what is, by rights, her bailiwick.

That’s a lot of “chiefs” to have ranged against the “Injun” Karzai—especially when many of them regard him as a vain and corrupt panjandrum worthy only of contempt (a lot of which has been dished out publicly in recent days).

In fact, to a casual observer unschooled in the Obama administration’s eccentric brand of diplomacy, it would come as a surprise (1) that Karzai is a friend of the U.S., (2) that the U.S. ratified his reelection last year, and (3) that he has as little to gain from a Taliban victory in Afghanistan as we have. And yet, only days ago, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, was suggesting in public that Karzai’s invitation to Washington, booked for May 12, might be revoked if the dastardly Afghan didn’t mend his ways. Guess who’s not coming to dinner, sneered the spokesman-minion, in effect.

That last threat, now mercifully withdrawn, was the culmination of a puerile and gaudy pissing match (there’s no other, polite way to describe it) between the administration and Karzai, with beratings by Washington provoking increasingly incandescent ripostes from Karzai. In a sleazy little whispering campaign that did Washington scant credit, Karzai’s sanity has been questioned; and one participant in this unseemly donnybrook—Peter Galbraith, formerly the U.N.’s No. 2 in Kabul—went so far as to suggest that Karzai is addicted to drugs. (My advice to readers: You can trust Galbraith as far as you can jump from a standing position with 50 pound weights strapped to your ankles… but not an inch farther; Google “Peter Galbraith” and “Kurdistan” to see why.)

There is no question that Karzai presides over a corrupt government. Washington has known of corruption for a long while, and it certainly knew so when it ratified Karzai’s not entirely squeaky clean election. All this raises the question: What is Obama’s aim in Afghanistan? Is it to turn that country into a Switzerland with minarets? Or to ensure that we vanquish the Taliban, so that Afghanistan does not again become a haven for international terrorists, as it was before the 9/11 attacks?

Hasn’t Obama repeatedly made clear his disdain for nation-building, regarding such projects as the sort of imperial overreach so typical of the Bush administration? Hasn’t he, as a salutary counterphilosophy, insisted that America’s armed involvement abroad be limited to the most pressing, exigent aims? So why make a fetish of graft under Karzai, and so make the perfect Afghanistan the enemy of the workable? Why jeopardize what is eminently achievable and our highest priority—to wit, the resounding defeat of the Taliban—to pursue the fantasy of an uncorrupt Kabul? And why do so when there is no constitutional alternative to Karzai, given that he has a five-year term (ratified, I repeat, by us)? The Obama administration has no Plan B in Kabul; and yet, it has set out—rashly, recklessly, moronically—to destroy Plan A! (The alternative should have been to chastise, or warn, or indicate displeasure to Karzai in private, behind very firmly closed doors. That way, the point could have been made, and absorbed, effectively. But this is an administration that is incapable of conceiving its politics except in the spotlight of the press, the glare of television. Where’s the kudos in privacy?)

The administration appears, temporarily, to have come to its senses: On Sunday, both Clinton and Gates (the former more convincingly, and sincerely, than the latter) stated publicly that Karzai is a reliable partner. Of all those who make (or mar) U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, Hillary is the one who bears no blame for the recent bad blood with Karzai. She has a fine grasp of the difference between diplomacy and bluster, and shutting her out of much of the main AfPak action has been a major—even calamitous—mistake. (It is of a piece, of course, with the elaborate Obama-Hillary theater, in which he appears to give her responsibility, but in fact does not, and she appears to be grateful to him for the arrangement, but in fact is not.)

One clear change that could, and should, be made to the architecture of our AfPak diplomacy is to elevate Hillary above Holbrooke in the AfPak theater. The latter has had an opportunity to make an impact. The results have been dreadful. It is now time to hand the job—the hardest in American diplomacy—to the hard lady of American politics.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)