Saturday, April 10, 2010

Obama Apologizes to Karzai

From its inception psychotherapy has been about reading minds. A therapist is supposed to tell you what you really mean, what you are really feeling, and what you really want.

The therapeutic process was designed to convince you that your therapist knows your mind better than you do. If you disagree, that means that you do not even know that you do not know.

Coaching comes at things from a different angle. It offers a different perspective. Its focus is reality, not your mind.

A coach must be able to analyze and to grasp the complex social interactions that his client is involved in. And he must be able to recommend different ways for his client to mange them. A coach doesn't read minds; he reads social realities.

I have used this blog to show how I read situations in the world. I have avoided offering examples from my own personal and professional experience, because that would give me an unfair advantage over you. If I select out the facts that prove whatever point I want to make, then the blog would become more indoctrination than education.

Sometimes I write about political situations where we all have access to the same information. We may not know everything-- often, we do not-- but as often we know enough to analyze the situation and make a judgment.

And I try to offer a different perspective, a different way to analyze information that has often been worked over extensively in the press and in the blogosphere. Hopefully, my analysis will help you to understand the world better.

Sorry for the long preamble, but I want to return to my discussion of the recent diplomatic flap between Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai.

I blogged about the situation last Wednesday (link here), and I contributed to a discussion about it on the BBC radio program, "World Have Your Say," on Thursday. (My thanks to the producers of WHYS for inviting me to participate.)

In the post and on the radio I wanted to make the point that whatever you think of Karzai, Obama's wilful and public effort to humiliate him caused him to react. Hamid Karzai had to save face.

Like it or not, Karzai is our ally. He will not be able to provide anything resembling effective political leadership if his strongest ally is diminishing him. His ability to be govern will be compromised if Obama's criticism of him is left to stand.

If our policy is to rally the Afghan people to the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai, it does not advance our interests to have the American president undermine his authority, his prestige, his competence, and his legitimacy.

I did not do what many others have tried to do. I did not try to plumb the depths of Karzai's psyche. I did not seek out deeper meanings or intentions. I did not put him on the couch or try to read his mind. I did not try to find more complex motives than the need to save face.

Nor did I examine the question of whether Karzai is as corrupt and ineffectual as Obama said he was. Even if we grant that Obama was right, saying it in public was bad diplomacy.

How do you expect someone to garner the competence to overcome his incompetence when you have announced to the world that he is too incompetent to do so?

In my post I noted that the Wall Street Journal had offered a similar analysis. Today I was reading Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek addressing the same topic. Link here.

Zakaria does not make a habit of criticizing Obama. Yet, he argues the same point that I was making. Namely, that Obama made a major diplomatic mistake when he publicly criticized Karzai. As Zakaria writes: "Venting is not foreign policy."

Zakaria adds an important point, one that is worth mentioning. He reminds us that we are talking about Afghanistan here. It is not an advanced industrial democracy; it does not have a centuries-old tradition of parliamentary governance. Afghanistan has warlords and tribal elders. When dealing with Western potentates, they often demonstrate very thin skin indeed.

We ignore this reality at our peril. We need to get real with Afghanistan. In Zakaria's words: "Does anyone really believe that [Karzai's] successor will be a brilliant manager and a Jeffersonian democrat of unimpeachable virtue."

My hope is that those of you who have been following my analysis are better equipped to understand subsequent events. After all, the value of an analysis lies in its ability to clarify a situation and allow you to watch it unfolding, the better to make a judgment.

Note, for example, that former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who certainly has warmer feelings for Obama than the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, declared yesterday that Obama had made a serious diplomatic error by criticizing Karzai in public. She recommended a more conciliatory tone. Link here.

This statement, from a respected Democratic foreign policy expert, suggests that the Obama administration is looking for a way out of the mess without admitting too much responsibility.

Then, yesterday, Obama sent Karzai a thank-you note, to express his gratitude for the Afghan president's hospitality during his last visit. Surely, this represents a significant shift in policy. Gratitude is a long way from contempt and condescension. It is about as close as Obama gets to humility when he is speaking about himself. The New York Times report of the thank-you note contains a good summary of the facts of the crisis. Link here.

To be fair, I was exaggerating slightly when I suggested in the title of this post that Obama had apologized. Strictly speaking, he did not apologize. Yet, his shift in tone tells us that he is admitting that he got it wrong. And he is trying to make things right diplomatically.

We do not know whether this will be sufficient to reset American-Afghan relations, but it is a strong step in the right direction.

As with any relationship involving human beings, the small gestures often count far more than the great dramas. If you are working to improve your ability to read human situations, it is good to keep this sequence in mind.

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