The Pakistan Whisperer

Article excerpt

Byline: Michelle Cottle

In a dangerous region, John Kerry emerges as America's unofficial peacemaker. Next stop: Secretary of State?

Sen. John Kerry was at home in Washington when he first got word that Osama bin Laden was dead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned him from the White House Situation Room in the immediate afterglow of the Abbottabad raid. "The first thing I did was congratulate her and the president and the whole team," the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee recalls. "It was an exceptional accomplishment."

But soon the conversation turned to more ominous topics: What does this mean for the war in Afghanistan? And, even more immediately, what in the world will this do to U.S. relations with Pakistan?

These questions have had Kerry running full tilt ever since. As much as anyone in Washington, the Massachusetts Democrat is neck deep in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (or AfPak) diplomatic muddle. He knows the issues, he knows the players, and he is a popular figure in the region, thanks in part to the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package, which authorizes $1.5 billion annually to Pakistan. This gives the senator particular weight. As former State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley puts it: "Kerry is probably unique in being able to go to Pakistan as a demonstrated friend and say, 'Look, lots of people are calling for us to cut off assistance. I will not be able to defend you unless you respond in a meaningful way to this event.'?"

Following the May 1 raid, Kerry has been in a mad scramble to salvage--and redefine--what was already a rocky international marriage. Last week he headed to Afghanistan to visit President Hamid Karzai and other officials. (Kerry is keen to reevaluate America's continued presence.) This week he was scheduled to hit Pakistan for a similar round of meetings.

The role of unofficial diplomat-at-large by definition takes Kerry into territory patrolled by the Big Guns (and Big Egos) of the president's foreign-policy team. Now and again, toes get stepped on and unflattering narratives arise.

"More often than not, the senator puts himself at the center of things," one administration official sniffily told me, sounding as though the center was getting a mite crowded. "He's like a moth to the foreign-policy flame."

But however annoying he may be, Kerry has emerged as President Obama's go-to guy when things get ugly in the region. Indeed, with lame-duck secretaries of state and defense and other key members of the foreign-policy team in flux--and Kerry's universally assumed desire to succeed Clinton at State--his might just wind up being the loudest voice in the room.

Kerry has been deeply enmeshed in AfPak statecraft from the start. Clinton's handpicked special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, proved something of a disaster in the job, clashing with legislators, foreign officials, and especially White House aides. "They hated him at the highest levels," says a recently departed State Department official, acknowledging that Clinton had to intervene on Holbrooke's behalf now and again. As his bridges burned, the ambassador increasingly relied on Kerry to meet with foreign leaders and champion his ideas with the White House. "Holbrooke turned to Kerry as a way of giving himself some additional leverage," says a friend of the late ambassador. A Pakistani official recounts how, during Holbrooke's visits, the ambassador was constantly on the phone with Kerry. During one sit-down with President Asif Ali Zardari, Holbrooke whipped out his cell phone and rang up Kerry on the spot. Zardari sat there befuddled as Holbrooke told him, "I've got Senator Kerry on the line right here," then handed him the phone so Kerry could get involved. After that, says the official with a chuckle, whenever Holbrooke and Zardari were scheduled to meet, the president's staff would install cell-phone jammers to prevent the ambassador from repeating the stunt. …