The United States needs to be "sensitive" in its dealings with Hamid Karzai, not the other way around, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."
The Afghan president has made a series of comments in recent weeks that have strained relations, including referring to the U.S. military as "occupiers" and even suggesting he could envision joining the Taliban. The White House has said the remarks are "genuinely troubling."
Gates suggested that Karzai's comments need to be looked at in a political context. "This is a man who's, first of all, a political leader," Gates said. "He has domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences. I think we frankly have to be sensitive in our own comments about President Karzai in terms of being mindful that he is the embodiment of sovereignty for Afghanistan also in the way we treat him."
Gates stressed that the U.S. military continues to have a "very positive relationship" with Karzai, despite recent diplomatic dust-ups.
Gates' comments come as the Obama administration has been under fire for its part in strained relations with Karzai. In a speech Thursday before the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, conservative activist Liz Cheney called the treatment of Karzai by the White House "juvenile."
"They dress him down publicly almost daily and refuse to even say that he is an ally," she said. "There is a saying in the Arab world: 'It is more dangerous to be America's friend than to be her enemy.' In the age of Obama, that is proving true."
At the end of a busy foreign policy week for the Obama administration, Republican critics also seized on changes to the U.S. nuclear posture as making the country less safe, especially with respect to the deterrent effect on Iran and Korea. Former Alaska governor and Fox News contributor Sarah Palin Wednesday told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity, "It's kind of like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, 'Go ahead, punch me in the face, and I'm not going to retaliate.'"
Obama dismissed the criticism Friday during an interview on "Good Morning America," saying, "Last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues."
Gates, Clinton Push Back
The administration's Nuclear Posture Review released Monday pledged that the United States will not use nuclear weapons in any country that has signed and is abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran and North Korea are not signatories to that treaty.
In a joint "This Week" interview today, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed back at critics of changes in U.S. nuclear posture. Gates insisted, "We have more robust deterrents today, because we've added to the nuclear deterrent missile defense. And ... with the phased adaptive approach that the president has approved, we will have significantly greater capability to deter the Iranians, because we will have a significantly greater missile defense."
Clinton said the administration remains focused on Iran and North Korea but "we are also very concerned about nuclear material falling into terrorists' hands."
But Gates added that the U.S. deterrent is being enhanced by a new array of conventional options. "We're … developing this conventional prompt global strike, which really hadn't gone anywhere in the ... Bush administration, but has been embraced by the new administration. That allows us to use long-range missiles with conventional warheads. So we have ... more tools, if you will, in the deterrents kit bag than ... we used to."