Washington (AP) - In a new indication of strained relations, the White House said Tuesday it would consider canceling an upcoming visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai if he continues to make troublesome remarks. Such a move would be a remarkable diplomatic slap likely to infuriate the mercurial leader.
Despite the public reproach, senior administration officials said the tough statement was really meant as a warning and a sign of Washington's continued unhappiness with the Afghan leader's comments. The officials, one of whom described it as "a shot across the bow," said canceling Karzai's invitation was not being seriously considered, at least not yet.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the administration's strategy, which they were not authorized to discuss publicly.
Karzai has infuriated the White House with accusations that the United Nations and the international community interfered in last year's fraud-tarnished presidential election in Afghanistan.
Karzai also threatened to join the Taliban insurgency if the U.S. continues pressuring him publicly to do more to end graft, cronyism and electoral fraud, more comments that stunned U.S. officials.
"We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes, as to whether that's constructive to have such a meeting, sure," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday. "Our position on this is that when the Afghan leaders take steps to improve governance and root out corruption, then the president will say kind words," Gibbs said. "When leaders need to hear stern language from this administration about the consequences of not acting, we'll do that as well."
White House officials said no cancellation was imminent. While irritated by Karzai, the U.S. military also wants closer cooperation ahead of a potentially decisive offensive this summer.
But just the fact that President Barack Obama's chief spokesman raised the possibility so bluntly and in such a public setting, very rare in the careful, nuanced world of diplo-speak, showed the depth of anger and frustration in Washington toward Karzai. Declining to schedule a meeting is one thing, as the White House seemed close to doing twice with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But scotching one that is already on the calendar is another.
Karzai was due to meet with Obama at the White House on May 12.
Obama extended the long-sought invitation during his own visit to Kabul late last month after telling Karzai and his cabinet that he was pleased with progress on anti-corruption measures and the fight against insurgents. At the time he stressed more needed to be done in both areas.
Since then Karzai has grown more defiant, launching the scorching accusation about Western interference in his elections, which prompted a phone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday to smooth things over. After that came the threat to join the Taliban.
"I don't know why somebody continues to insinuate that there was some sort of foreign corruption when the very thing that he speaks of was looked into," Gibbs said of Karzai's accusation regarding election fraud. "So I can't begin to decide what reasoning he had for making those comments."
A delicate diplomatic dance also surrounded Netanyahu's visit to Obama two weeks ago. In a break with custom, reporters were not invited to see the two leaders shake hands and begin their talks, and neither side has provided a substantive account of the session. A rift over new Israeli housing planned in east Jerusalem has contributed to the deepest dispute between the U.S. and Israel in decades.
Meanwhile, the administration's point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has canceled plans to visit the region later this week for medical reasons, his office said. Holbrooke informed his staff Tuesday that he may have some blocked arteries and will be getting treated in New York this week instead of making the trip.
Holbrooke was to have accompanied a number of other senior U.S. officials, including the top military commander for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gen. David Petraeus, and USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, on the tour, which will still go ahead.
It will be the second high-level visit Holbrooke has not made to the region in recent weeks. Holbrooke's absence was noticed when he did not go with Obama when he made his surprise trip to Afghanistan last month.
Associated Press writer Matt Lee contributed to this report.
Such a move would be a remarkable diplomatic slap likely to infuriate the mercurial leader.