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Pressure And Its Discontents

By Matt Duss  

"Pressure And Its Discontents"

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karzai_obamaOne of the sillier conservative talking points these days is the idea that, under President Obama, America is being mean to its allies while appeasing its enemies. The most common comparison that’s trotted out is Obama’s attempt to dial down U.S.-Iran tensions in order to engage the Iranian regime over its nuclear program while at the same ratcheting up pressure on Israel’s government to cease its illegal settlement activity.

Speaking at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on Thursday, Liz Cheney sought to illustrate this point with specific regard to President Obama’s pressuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai to crack down on government corruption by referencing what she claimed was “a saying in the Arab world: ‘It is more dangerous to be America’s friend than to be her enemy.’”

While one is usually on safe ground simply assuming that whatever comes out of Liz Cheney’s mouth is false, it’s worth noting that this particular statement is false in three different ways. First, and most obviously, Hamid Karzai is not Arab, nor is Afghanistan part of “the Arab world.” Second, this particular “saying” is actually one that originated with that well-known Arab sage Henry Kissinger (“it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal”), in reference to wavering U.S. support for the Vietnamese government in the late 1960s.

Third, and most significantly, is the ridiculous idea — echoed, of course, by Sarah Palin — that the U.S. using public pressure on its partners in order to get them to behave in ways that better serve U.S. interests is somehow outside the boundaries of acceptable foreign policy behavior. Afghan government corruption is a huge problem for U.S.-led coalition’s goals in Afghanistan. After months and years of private cajoling, Karzai has shown little enthusiasm for dealing with it, so it seems appropriate for President Obama go public with his concerns, especially in the context of a trip whose main goal was to reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to the Afghanistan mission.

Likewise with Israel, which under Bibi Netanyahu has refused to honor its past commitments to halt settlements and continued its provocative anti-Palestinian housing policies in East Jerusalem, creating enormous difficulties for the peace process and for U.S. credibility in the region. Given the very public intransigence of the Israeli government in response to U.S. entreaties, it seems appropriate for the Obama administration to make clear to Israeli, American, and international publics where it stands on the question of Israeli settlements, and what it requires of its partner state.

The more important question is: Will this approach work? We’ll have to wait and see. One thing is for sure, though: recent history doesn’t argue in favor of the “pressure only in private” approach. It has failed thus far, after eight years, to produce significant Afghan movement against corruption. And it was only after the Obama administration began applying public pressure that the Netanyahu government agreed to partially and temporarily meet its commitment to halt settlements.

Finally, as Matt Yglesias noted recently, the idea that, in contrast to “bullying” its allies, the U.S. is “coddling” Iran — against whom the U.S. has implemented numerous sanctions and penalties over the past thirty years, and is currently working to assemble a coalition to adopt even more — is just daft. But it’s also indicative of how far the president’s critics will reach for any argument, no matter how blatantly implausible and dishonest, to bash him.

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