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How could the Dutch dare to disappoint Obama?

February 24, 2010

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President Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende in July 2009 (Photo APF)

Last Saturday the Dutch government collapsed over a rift about extending Dutch military participation in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Many here wonder how an argument about a place that most Dutch people don’t even know how to spell could escalate so badly in a time where the Netherlands arguably has much bigger issues to worry about. Like the economy, immigration, education or increasing criminal offense.

Leaving that aside I think the events of the past week give some interesting insight in international relations. Especially those between the US and Western-European countries. Afghanistan is a good example of how the Dutch government – as well as other European governments – is strained between pleasing the US and pleasing their voters. With 21 soldiers dead since the Netherlands deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2006 – most of them to Uruzgan, one of the most dangerous areas – many Dutch people say enough is enough.

From the point of view of the Obama administration, the now inevitable Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan must be a disappointment. Despite the relatively small number of Dutch troops there – around 2000 – the Netherlands has since long been a loyal ally to the US. Their actions may follow example from other European countries, like France or Germany.

It will also be interesting to see if and to what extent Obama critics are going to hold the Dutch withdrawal against him. After all, wasn’t President Obama’s popularity in the world going to help him achieve much more internationally – and especially in Europe – then his predecessor George W. Bush? A phone call only weeks ago from Vice President Biden to Dutch deputy Prime Minister Bos may have been a final attempt to convince the Dutch to keep their troops in Uruzgan. It didn’t work out.

The impact of these recent events on the relationship between the US and the Netherlands remains to be seen. For now, Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende can hold off on booking his ticket to Washington DC as he likely won’t be invited over for coffee at the White House any time soon.

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