President Obama has yet to be fully tested – as recent presidents have – over how much he would violate another country’s sovereignty for the sake of American interests.
But he came close to defining that critical line for himself this past weekend.
At the NATO summit in Lisbon, Mr. Obama engaged in an open quarrel with Hamid Karzai, the elected president of Afghanistan, over which leader is now really in charge of security in that country – once the home of Al Qaeda training camps and still under threat from the Taliban.
In the end, the two leaders seemed to patch up their rather public disagreement. They agreed to a renewed UN-approved pact that permits US-led NATO forces to lead the fight against the Taliban until at least 2014.
But not before each leader made a claim for authority over determining Afghanistan’s future.
Mr. Karzai resents the fact that his fledgling democratic government cannot veto certain NATO methods, such as night raids on Afghan homes in search of Taliban fighters – raids that sometimes terrorize a household or result in civilian casualties.
And he dislikes the fact that so many foreign workers operate outside his government’s control. To him, the 1,500 workers in the US Embassy in Kabul seem like the reigning rulers.
At first, Obama appeared to sympathize, saying Karzai is “eager to reassert full sovereignty.” But then he pointed out that the United States won’t allow Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan, that the US is spending billions to develop the country, and that more NATO troops would be killed without the use of forceful tactics like night raids. (The latter have been successful against the Taliban.)
“We have to listen and learn,” Obama said. “But he’s got to listen to us as well.”
Breaking a nation’s sovereignty isn’t always easy for the US, but it has become more common.
After 9/11, President Bush had little trouble leading an invasion of Taliban-run Afghanistan but was strongly criticized for the Iraq invasion. Before him, Bill Clinton led NATO to liberate Bosnia and Kosovo from Serbian atrocities. George H.W. Bush sent US troops into Somalia. Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada, and bombed Libya.
For Obama, the next possible dispute with Karzai could be over the terms of any negotiated deals with the various Taliban groups. Will they be allowed to keep their arms and be given positions of authority? Will the rights of Afghan women be honored? Such questions will test the seesaw of wills between Obama and Karzai over sovereignty.
The US president already has enough trouble with Pakistan. He uses both diplomatic pressure and the carrot of aid to persuade that democratic nation to allow more American drone strikes within its borders in order to hit both the Afghan Taliban as well as Al Qaeda leaders. The latest US demand is for expanded drone flights over Quetta, a key city for the Taliban.
He has not ruled out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. And with the news that North Korea now has a large uranium-enrichment facility, Obama may need to take tough measures to prevent that rogue nation from exporting nuclear weapons to other nations.
Since 2003, the US has led a group of nations in setting up a screening of North Korean exports, looking for weapons of mass destruction. The so-called Proliferation Security Initiative, for instance, has led to the US Navy interdicting North Korean ships. The United Nations also gave similar authority for the intercepting of Iranian ships suspected of illegal cargo.
Staying within UN approval for such intrusions on a country’s sovereignty is usually within American interests. But just how far Obama will go if he deems that the US must act alone remains to be seen.
During the verbal showdown at the NATO summit with Karzai, Obama gave a hint of his inclinations on breaking another nation’s sovereignty in a future crisis. He did, for example, reject Karzai’s call to end the night raids.
With at least two more years in office, and maybe four beyond that, it would be helpful to know exactly how this president defines his limits for acting unilaterally in a security crisis. Is he now ready, for instance, to strike inside Pakistan without permission if another 9/11-style attack on Americans is traced to that country? (During the 2008 campaign, Obama backed such a hypothetical.)
As the previous president learned after the Iraq invasion, the legitimacy of any US action must be well respected for it to succeed. Best to prepare the ground early.