John Kerry: Obama's Go-To Guy in Pakistan

Illustration by Andy Friedman

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, the late Richard Holbrooke (the peacemaker in the Balkans war) clashed with legislators, foreign officials and 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.

This February, Kerry was asked to help secure the release of Ray Davis, the CIA contractor arrested in Pakistan for fatally shooting two men he said had tried to rob him. Underestimating the political fallout of the episode, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan went ahead with a scheduled trip back to Washington the day of the shooting. The CIA and much of the administration, meanwhile, started beating the "diplomatic immunity" drum. As one Pakistani official tells it, "They didn't want to admit that one of their guys had screwed up. They tried to strong-arm us."

Ten days after the shooting, Kerry called Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani and invited him to his Georgetown home for tea. Asked by the White House to help defuse the crisis, the senator wanted Haqqani's input. According to a person familiar with the meeting, Haqqani told Kerry that the situation required "an expression of remorse" by the U.S. and that it had to be delivered in Lahore, the opposition-controlled city where the killing had occurred. Kerry promptly arranged to fly over and deliver the message. His appearance on Pakistani television helped "soften the blow," says the official, enabling both countries to save face.

Kerry's diplomatic outreach has its risks. In a February 2010 meeting with the emir of Qatar, the senator expressed support for Israel's giving up the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. When a confidential write-up of the meeting became public thanks to WikiLeaks, Kerry drew fire from Israel hawks.

But the senator is no rogue freelancer. He stays in close contact with both the White House and Foggy Bottom. (Maybe a little too close: one administration official jokes that some staffers have surely reached the point of thinking, "Oh, God, not him again!") Clinton and national-security adviser Tom Donilon are frequent Kerry correspondents. Now and again, White House officials shut Kerry down, as when he was reportedly planning a visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a politically inopportune moment in February. For the most part, however, they give him running room.

The widespread assumption that Kerry has been auditioning to succeed Secretary Clinton (a job he wanted when Obama first took office) clearly offends some Hillaryland veterans. Loyalists can sound exasperated by his omnipresence. (No one has forgotten that he endorsed Obama early.) Clinton herself "will express annoyance here and there," says a foreign-policy veteran in close contact with the secretary. "But she does not let it get the better of her—unlike a lot of the men in the business, who turn annoyances into vendettas."

Still, as a onetime presidential nominee, Kerry possesses more cachet than your average Senate chairman; as a foreign-policy fanatic with 27 years on the committee, he has relationships with the major global players; and as a quasi-independent operator, he provides the administration a welcome degree of cover. "He can carry the message and give you both distance and a transmission belt," says James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. For his part, the senator wants to make clear that he remains his own man. "I'm not a member of the administration. I don't work for the administration," he stresses to me. "But I'm perfectly happy to work with them when the interests of our country are on the line—when there's a policy we're mutually in agreement on." At times, he can sound a shade defensive about the relationship: "I didn't check with anybody before I spoke out on Libya. I said what I thought."

Kerry acknowledges differences with the president. "I support most of his policies today. Not all, but most." The senator, for instance, expressed frustration to friends that Obama didn't do more to nudge Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak toward the door early on; similarly, he was out in front of the president on intervention in Libya. For now, Kerry's focus is more targeted: trying to cool passions on both sides of the gaping U.S.-Pakistan wound. "You want to have this kind of conversation before tempers or emotions begin to solidify thinking in ways that are negative." Pakistan in particular needs to be urged away from letting diversionary issues (like how embarrassed it is over bin Laden's hiding in its midst for years) get in the way of tackling more vital ones. "We all need to handle this like adults," says Kerry.

Raising the stakes, with Obama's national-security team playing musical chairs, Kerry is emerging as the constant. "We're not talking about somebody who just shows up in country for a photo op and to add a tag to his luggage," says P. J. Crowley. AfPak leaders are well aware that Kerry is deeply invested in the region, he says. "They fail to respond to him at their peril."