If President Clinton was known for political triangulation, his wife is establishing herself as the quarterback of a multidirectional diplomatic offense.
Sen. John Kerry’s dramatic insertion into talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week marked the third time the Obama administration has used proxy diplomats to resolve major foreign crises.
While critics of the approach say it is undermining Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and regular diplomatic channels, Mr. Kerry and State Department officials say that the secretary fully supported the senator’s unusual role.
Mrs. Clinton even called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Monday to make sure it was OK for Mr. Kerry to miss a few important votes to secure Mr. Karzai’s consent to a runoff election to settle an August vote tainted by fraud.
The mission by Mr. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed high-profile diplomacy by another committee member, Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, and by Mr. Clinton.
“Secretary Clinton has … talked about expanding the diplomatic tools in the toolbox,” said P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs. “What is most significant - if you focus on the examples of Senator Kerry and Senator Webb - it is the case of having the United States communicate through a variety of channels, but with a consistent message, and that’s very important.”
Mr. Webb in August went to Myanmar, where he met with political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and Gen. Than Shwe, the head of the military junta that is keeping her under house arrest. While Mrs. Suu Kyi remains a prisoner, Mr. Webb won the release of an American detainee, John Yettaw.
Coming a few days after Mr. Clinton’s trip to North Korea, where he secured freedom for two American journalists, Mr. Webb’s trip also became a big story.
Mr. Webb’s staff said much of the reporting inaccurately portrayed his trip as a renegade mission.
“He had a number of conversations with Secretary Clinton both before and after the trip,” said Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith.
The three missions had differing elements. Mr. Clinton’s trip, for example, came at the request of the journalists’ families and his former vice president, Al Gore, the reporters’ employer. That it also had the effect of breaking the ice with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was an added bonus for those who advocate engagement with difficult regimes.
To supporters, the Obama administration’s use of proxies demonstrates a highly pragmatic approach to foreign policy. To critics, it is a short-term strategy that may undermine Mrs. Clinton and her regular diplomats, confuse U.S. allies and embolden the nation’s enemies.
Mr. Kerry’s sudden elevation to such a crucial role in the region now at the center of U.S. foreign-policy attention raised questions, not only about Mrs. Clinton’s role, but that of Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The secretary of state herself is undermined by a very wide array of special envoys and special advisers,” said Nile Gardiner, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
With Mr. Kerry’s star turn, Mr. Gardiner said, “You even have the extraordinary situation of a special envoy being undermined by a special adviser.”
Mr. Holbrooke responded Thursday with his first public comments in weeks, telling Foreign Policy magazine that he “encouraged John to get in on this.”
At a press conference Friday in Washington, Mr. Holbrooke defended his relationship with Mr. Karzai, which many say is strained, calling it “fine,” “correct,” and “appropriate.”
“I have absolutely no problems with him, and it’s as simple as that,” Mr. Holbrooke said.
The jockeying between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Holbrooke, who have known each other since the Vietnam War, could also be a sign of a budding rivalry between front-runners to replace Mrs. Clinton whenever she steps down.
Mr. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said there is “great irony” in the talk of Mrs. Clinton being overshadowed by a flexible approach.
“She is the most enthusiastic supporter of having a range of envoys, not to supplant what she does, but to supplement what she does,” he said.
The White House declined to comment for this report.
Using proxies takes the onus off the secretary of state and the president, since there is less embarrassment should the proxies fail. Previous administrations have also used nondiplomats to resolve foreign crises.
Thomas Pickering, a veteran former ambassador and senior State Department official, compared the latest proxies to Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and former congressman who freed U.S. prisoners in Iraq and North Korea, among other places, in the 1990s. Mr. Richardson also met with North Korean diplomats in 2003, with the support of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, after the collapse of a 1994 nuclear agreement.
“Generally speaking, they [proxies] are used in situations where we have exhausted other alternatives,” Mr. Pickering said. Usually, proxies consult with the State Department and do their missions in a way that the State Department can follow up, he added.
He pointed to former President Jimmy Carter - who helped end a 1993-94 nuclear crisis with North Korea - as a proxy who sometimes caused anxiety in the White House because U.S. officials “weren’t quite sure what he was up to.”
Michael J. Green, a former top adviser on Asian affairs in the George W. Bush White House, agreed that “proxies can confuse people.”
In the case of Mr. Webb’s trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma, Mr. Green said, the senator “ended up confusing the message - leading many in the region to think the administration would lift sanctions on Burma when there was never any chance of that.”
A former political prisoner of the junta in Myanmar, U Win Tin, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month that Mr. Webb’s trip and ongoing efforts at engagement with the junta “have been damaging to our democracy movement.”
Mr. Kerry’s trip appears to have been more successful in obtaining a simple short-term goal.
Eliot Cohen, a top State Department official in the Bush administration, said Mr. Kerry was successful simply because he took an approach to the Afghan president that Mr. Holbrooke had not.
“It sounds as though Kerry is the first senior member of the administration who understands that the best way to deal with President Karzai is not to make nasty remarks about him to the newspapers, or bullying him, or storming out of meetings with him, but rather to build rapport over a period of days,” said Mr. Cohen, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.