John Kerry's star turn
Doha, Qatar — For Sen. John Kerry, it must be sweet vindication: Frustrated in his hopes of being president or secretary of state, he has found a role as a kind of roving ambassador -- negotiating with foreign leaders who are otherwise at odds with Washington.
Kerry’s star turn as a mediator came this week in Kabul, where his series of meetings with President Hamid Karzai helped produce a breakthrough agreement for a runoff election to resolve allegations of fraud in August’s balloting. Karzai accepted an international commission’s decision to throw out about one-third of his votes. That pushed his total below 50 percent and triggered the Nov. 7 runoff with Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister.
Kerry’s diplomatic leverage stems from the fact that he’s at once an insider and an outsider -- close to President Obama but not formally a member of his team. In the discussions with Karzai, Kerry worked closely with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has more flexibility than he would have as an administration official. And in the case of Afghanistan, he was able to ease some of the tension between Karzai and Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Kerry’s role in the Afghan negotiations was partly an accident of timing. He had arrived Friday on a previously scheduled fact-finding trip geared toward Afghanistan policy more generally, and he met that night with Karzai. The meetings continued through the weekend and resumed this week after a quick visit by Kerry on Monday to Pakistan.
In Islamabad Monday morning, Kerry was buoyant, even though he had little sleep the night before. As a former presidential candidate himself, perhaps he had been able to connect with the Afghan leader about the painful realities of politics. Kerry described the final breakthrough in a phone interview with me early Tuesday from Kabul. His satisfaction about the high-stakes negotiation was palpable.
Kerry played a similar mediating role earlier this year in breaking a logjam in U.S. relations with Syria. Kerry had met several times in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including a long dinner that included their wives. When administration efforts to improve U.S.-Syrian ties stalled, Kerry called Assad. He then worked with Obama’s team to come up with a formula that opened the way for a gradual warming of relations.
As Kerry’s aides recounted the events that led to the deal in Kabul, it was a tale of many, many hours of meetings with the prickly Afghan president. After he arrived in Kabul Friday, Kerry learned from Eikenberry that Karzai was about to denounce the international commission’s audit, which could have thrown the country into a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Concerned, Kerry made an unscheduled visit to Karzai’s palace that night for several hours of discussion.
Kerry met Saturday morning with Abdullah and then went back to see Karzai for another two hours, and then returned to the palace for a five-hour meeting with Karzai and various diplomats and election experts. The senator was back at the palace Sunday for another dinner long dinner meeting with the Afghan leader.
Kerry flew off to Pakistan late that night and then returned to Kabul Monday afternoon to meet yet again with Karzai -- when they struck the tentative deal for the runoff. The senator met Tuesday morning with Abdullah to encourage him to work with Karzai, post-runoff. Then it was back to the palace for another four hours to reassure Karzai and stitch together the final details.
At the press conference this morning, Kerry sounded more than a little weary. And one wonders, after this stint of marathon diplomacy and hand-holding, how Kerry will find life back in the all-too-familiar Senate chamber.
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