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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.

By David Ignatius  | October 20, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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It will be easier for Kerry to work with Karzai and Pakistan than it will for him to work in the Senate with Republicans. He has no leverage with Republicans and since they have adopted a policy of refusing to work with Democrats over anything, he will only experience a deep frustration. Not only that, Republicans will attempt to turn Kerry's accomplishment into a failure. We can expect them to launch political attacks in their ongoing effort to destroy our government's foreign policy initiatives.

Posted by: cms1 | October 20, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Mrs K was able to help by discretely getting some of her first husband's funds distributed through her favorite intermediary: the TIDES foundation... one of the most opaque & secret orgs she & Soros are funders of - Rathke a board member.

Posted by: sally62 | October 20, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

So, David, you think Kerry's photo-op with Karzai was a breakthrough?

Come on! Karzai's massive fraud has been a laughinstock for weeks. After the Election Comission decided yesterday to eliminate one-third of his votes, Karzai's ONLY option was to agree to a runoff.

Which changes NOTHING in Afghanistan. In a few weeks, another rigged election will take place. Voter turnout will be even lower than in August.

And, whatever the outcome, the next President will be a PUPPET of the United States, with ZERO legitimacy among Afghans.

The Taliban could not have asked for a better "breakthrough"!!!!

Posted by: tropicalfolk | October 20, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Is John Kerry a future Secretary of State -- in waiting? WHERE WAS HILLARY???

Posted by: wheeljc | October 20, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

For those who have been paying attention, even if it may have been an accident of timing, Senator Kerry's success in this instance is no accident. Over a period of many years, whenever the Senator has met with world leaders he has been accorded far more respect than he often receives here at home. He is recognized as a skilled diplomat, a fair mediator and a leader with a global view who has studied and understood the context and history of difficulty and conflict in various parts of the world.

On his frequent visits to the Middle East as a member, and now Chair, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has always met and talked with not only those in power, but also with American troops and with the people in the "street." This broad knowledge is filtered through Senator Kerry's own strong ethical values, concern for American and global security, and belief in the rule of law. His judgements have almost invariably been confirmed by history. He is definitely in a wonderful position to be at his most useful being in sympathy with but not actually within the current Administration. And the respect he has earned abroad through hard work and informed understanding is benefiting us all now with this breakthrough in Afghanistan and renewed hope for real climate change policy in Copenhagen.

Posted by: Luftmensch67 | October 20, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

This is a very interesting evaluation of John Kerry's talent. It's a pity he wasn't as successful a politician as he is a statesman.

While we're at it, let's consider other statesmen who didn't have the political skill to get elected. Al Gore was an active vice-president, if we read below the headlines. Bill Clinton gave him the job of explaining to the Soviets that we had to bomb in the former Yugoslavia, and Gore did the job well. But Gore couldn't win an election that should have been a no-brainer.

Wesley Clark has a stupendous resume and intellect but never got very far toward getting even the nomination. Jim Webb projects intelligence and strength as well as a long list of accomplishments. We may yet see more of him. Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar among Republicans show statesmanship, but the Republicans.... well, what to say. Even Mitt Romney should be taken seriously, but he must have been stymied by trying to win a nomination from that band of loonies.

So in the last election we had the choice of Obama - certainly impressive but perhaps in need of more seasoning, and Hillary Clinton, of whom we never would have heard had she not married Bill, and from the Republicans the likes of Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Huckabee, and they finally came up with the McCain/Palin ticket.

America's process for selecting the President fails.

Posted by: dicka1 | October 20, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

He should be good with foreign representatives. During his initial stent at politics and while he was still a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserves he "negotiated" though not a real representative of the US Government with the government of North Vietnam in Paris. He should stay overseas we would all be better off.

Posted by: staterighter | October 20, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Actually, staterighter, I found this quote from a Washington Post article from September, 2004:

Historian Douglas Brinkley said Kerry's trip to Paris, after his honeymoon with his first wife, Julia Thorne, was part of Kerry's extensive fact-finding efforts on the war. "He was on the fringes," said Brinkley, the author of "Tour of Duty," a book about Kerry's military service. "But he was proud of it. . . . He wanted to make his own evaluation of the situation."

This actually proves that John Kerry (who did not negotiate, he didn't have the credentials to negotiate, but rather talked to people to try to get an understanding of the situation was even then acting as a responsible, informed citizen of the U.S. Instead of blindly following someone else's line, he took the time and trouble to get the facts and assess the people involved for himself. He's still getting the facts rather than following someone else's line, and that leads to good, responsible, nonpartisan policymaking.

Posted by: Luftmensch67 | October 20, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

God, Kerry is such a a drag to listen to. His monotonic, pedantic style is narcoleptic.

I sure hope he is more animated in actual negotiations, because his public style is an anesthetically lethal.

Posted by: Anadromous2 | October 20, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

One thing is crystal from the postings here. Senator John F. Kerry is going to die of old age as Senator John F. Kerry. He's never gonna be President.

Here's mocked by Republicans, mourned by Democrats and (Y...a....w....n)ed at by us, Independents.

Posted by: Cute_Cobra | October 20, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

This is a wonderful development and one that Senator Kerry should be very proud of. I am in awe. I always thought of him as a patriot and a statesman of the highest calibur and this proves it to the rest of the world. I am sure Secretary Clinton is pleased with the outcome also, and appreciates Senator Kerry's assistance.
Now,I hope he rests up a little before trying to get the "party of no" back home to do what is best for the country.

Posted by: margievogel | October 20, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Only a fool would send John Kerry anywhere.

Posted by: ravitchn | October 20, 2009 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Only a fool would send John Kerry anywhere.
Posted by: ravitchn

I couldn't agree more. What a useless bag of skin. Kerry should be practicing for his new role as ex-senator Kerry!

Posted by: surfer-joe | October 20, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

How much was in the suitcase full of money Kerry gave Karzai? The problem is Karzai's opponent has no credibility in Afghanistan because he isn't Pashtun.

Posted by: alstl | October 20, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

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