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Stephen M. Walt

President Karzai feels the love

I’ve mostly stopped reading Maureen Dowd, as I’ve tired of her Gossip Girl approach to commentary, but sometimes she really does nail it. Today’s column on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington cuts neatly through the fog of feel-good blather surrounding the trip, and underscores the extent to which the Obama administration is merely ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I’ve mostly stopped reading Maureen Dowd, as I’ve tired of her Gossip Girl approach to commentary, but sometimes she really does nail it. Today’s column on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington cuts neatly through the fog of feel-good blather surrounding the trip, and underscores the extent to which the Obama administration is merely kicking this particular can down the road.

The problem is a familiar one. Once a great power commits itself to a weak client state, its prestige is on the line and it loses most of its potential leverage over the people it has chosen to back. Why? Because clients can always threaten to lose — which is the one thing the great power doesn’t want — and so threats to pull the plug on them aren’t very credible. Clients are even less likely to reform when their local support depends on patronage networks and other forms of corruption, and when they want to make sure they have enough money in their Swiss bank accounts to finance a lengthy exile should things go south.   

Patrons can pound the table and complain, but they soon look rather silly and ineffectual, and its now as though we have an ideal replacement for President Karzai waiting in the wings. So the United States has to try carrots instead of sticks, which is why Karzai is getting love-bombed in DC this week.

Afghanistan is hardly the first example of this problem, of course. The United States couldn’t get its South Vietnamese clients to shape up during the Vietnam War, and key Soviet clients like Egypt repeatedly extorted additional aid from Moscow by threatening to resign or realign with the West.  

Virtually everyone agrees that we can’t succeed in Afghanistan without a reasonably legitimate and effective government in Kabul, even if it is running a fairly decentralized state with lots of local autonomy. There is also widespread agreement that Karzai is an ineffective leader, and that corruption is endemic. We’ve tried browbeating him to no avail, and now we’re trying a charm offensive. But neither is going to work, and President Obama is going to face another difficult decision when that eighteen-month deadline expires next summer.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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