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The Limits of Presidential Appeal: Dutch Edition

- February 18, 2010

It looks increasingly likely that the Dutch cabinet will soon collapse over disagreements about a continued role for the Dutch military in Afghanistan. The Dutch initially agreed to a two-year mission in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in August of 2006 and later extended the mission to last until the end of this year. By most accounts, the mission has gone rather well, for example leading the Economist to label it as “Afghanistan’s Dutch model province.” NATO has requested an extension. Yet, any military mission of this type is risky and prone to become unpopular. There have been about two dozen Dutch fatalities. The second largest coalition partner, the Social-Democrats (PvdA), opposes any extension; leading to schisms within the government upon which the opposition is currently feasting.

The Obama Administration and its Dutch permanent representative to NATO, political scientist Ivo Daalder, are desperately trying to change the minds of the Dutch government as part of their attempts to get as many countries as possible to commit new troops. Yet, it is difficult for Obama or anyone else to make politicians do things they don’t want to do. The PvdA had promised their voters that they would not again renew the Dutch mission. Local elections are approaching and polls indicate that the PvdA stands to lose in a major way. Moreover, its leader, Wouter Bos is under immense pressure to turn the tide or he may well lose his job. As the high quality Dutch newspaper NRC puts it (in Dutch, my translation).

It is no longer just about the question whether the Dutch should stay in Uruzgan. All kinds of political factors play a role. The PvdA has been saying for months that the mission will end in December of 2010 and stayed committed to that position even when President Obama announced that extra troops were needed to turn the tide in Afghanistan. The PvdA is afraid it will again be accused of “flip-flopping.” That is more important than a request from the much-admired Obama.

This seems right to me. On average, it is better for diplomacy to have a President who is admired by many than one who is not. In the end though, this is not going to help when it conflicts with the bread and butter of politics.

Update: The Dutch cabinet has now officially collapsed. Matthew Yglesias takes issue with my interpretation of events.