Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The perils of carpe diem

By Peter Feaver The mounting criticism of the Karzai family has got me thinking the same thing that Tom Ricks is thinking: When President Obama looks at Karzai does he see Diem? I am hoping he sees Maliki. Diem was the leader of South Vietnam who famously frustrated President Kennedy (and before him, President Eisenhower, ...

577976_091029_diemb2.jpg
577976_091029_diemb2.jpg

By Peter Feaver

The mounting criticism of the Karzai family has got me thinking the same thing that Tom Ricks is thinking: When President Obama looks at Karzai does he see Diem? I am hoping he sees Maliki.

By Peter Feaver

The mounting criticism of the Karzai family has got me thinking the same thing that Tom Ricks is thinking: When President Obama looks at Karzai does he see Diem? I am hoping he sees Maliki.

Diem was the leader of South Vietnam who famously frustrated President Kennedy (and before him, President Eisenhower, and before him the French). He enjoyed more legitimacy than any other South Vietnamese leader did in the early 1960s, but he ran a corrupt and somewhat ineffective government. He also got embroiled in sectarian conflicts with the Buddhists that further split South Vietnamese society. The American advisory and support commitment seemed to be handicapped by Diem’s weakness and Kennedy perceived the American effort to be slowly collapsing. In response, Kennedy ramped up the pressure on Diem to do more, but Diem seemed only capable of doing less. Finally, Kennedy took a fateful step and authorized U.S. acquiescence in a coup to depose Diem, which transpired in early November 1963. During the course of the coup, Diem was assassinated.  

What came after Diem, however, was worse: years of political paralysis caused by successive coups. With each new political crisis, the South Vietnamese government got progressively weaker, and the need for greater U.S. involvement to stave off a catastrophic defeat got progressively stronger. Looking back on the matter in later years, the Johnson team concluded that toppling Diem had been a severe blunder, a pivot point in the gradual American slide into quagmire.

As it happens, the Bush team confronted its own “Diem” question in Iraq in 2006. The new Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki presided over a fledgling Iraqi government that suffered from some of the same weaknesses: corruption, ineffective governance, and debilitating sectarian squabbles. As President Bush wrestled with how to reverse the negative trajectory in Iraq, one nagging question seemed decisive: Is Prime Minister Maliki part of the problem or part of the solution? Bush even dispatched National Security Advisor Hadley to Baghdad to take his own soundings on this question. Hadley’s memo was leaked to the New York Times so you can read his assessment yourself.  

While the option never had serious proponents within the administration, some arm-chair strategists outside of government even advocated the “Diem option” in Iraq: somehow replacing Maliki with some other Iraqi leader who would, it was hoped, prove more to our liking. President Bush decisively rejected such talk and instead authorized a series of efforts to bolster the Maliki government — steps collectively called the “bet on Maliki” option. Since then, there has been plenty in Iraqi governance to complain about, but I think most people would agree that the two and half years since the surge in Iraq have gone better than the two and half years after the coup that deposed Diem.

President Obama and his advisors seem to be wrestling with this fundamental issue in Afghanistan and the optics and the body language seem more oriented towards Diem rather than Maliki. Of course, the analogies are not perfect and the Afghan situation must be evaluated on its own terms. But Obama would also be well-advised to reflect on the historical record and the dangers of undermining even frustratingly weak and corrupt allies when there are not obviously better alternatives ready to take their place — and when American efforts to install a new leader might inspire resentment rather than support among the people he would ostensibly govern.

STF/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.