As the new US secretary of state’s recent maiden overseas tour demonstrated, the problem with John Kerry is that there is no problem.
Kerry is not female, black or gay. He has never been deprived or abused. Nor is he an alcoholic. Not being Hillary Clinton, he doesn’t even have bad hair days.
He’s married to a heiress, is unremittingly urbane, with distinguished looks and a military and political record to match.
In his new job as America’s chief diplomat, he is empowered — and supremely able — to convey his country’s customary messages of goodwill to the world.
That too, in multiple European languages, a point that the more insular American media outlets have mocked as “unpatriotic, vaguely unmanly Europhilia”.
But even David Rothkopf, the hugely influential CEO and editor-at-large of the very cosmopolitan, widely read Foreign Policy magazine, has acidly asked: “Does John Kerry matter?”
Other than events, argues Rothkopf, there is almost no reason to suppose that Kerry has anything but ‘limited’ room to “make big adjustments to US foreign policy… (and) to the extent that he does, it will really be at the margins”.
He may have a point, but only if one regards Pakistan as “at the margins” of US strategic thinking.
Kerry may not have been President Barack Obama’s first choice for his second-term secretary of state (he wanted his profoundly undiplomatic ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice) but he is remarkably well placed and willing to do the heavy lifting.
For policy wonks in the war room, the biggest elephant is Pakistan and Kerry is arguably the American best placed to speak — and be heard — by both the generals in Rawalpindi and political sharpshooters in Islamabad.
Consider his ‘war record’ in Pakistan, America’s key ally against al-Qaeda. It is more extensive than almost any previous US secretary of state before taking office.
And it seems to suggest more of a leaning towards Pakistan than almost any secretary of state, other than possibly John Foster Dulles.
The consequences of Dulles’ 1950s pivot to Pakistan are, of course, well-known, not least coddling Islamabad into childish misbehaviour and cold-shouldering India and other non-aligned countries as an ‘immoral’ club whose concept of “neutrality (is) increasingly obsolete and except under very exceptional circumstances… shortsighted”.
This is not to suggest that Kerry is Dulles reincarnate, but it is undeniable that his interests and influence are more entwined with Pakistan than Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Madeline Albright and Warren Christopher, to name just a few of his predecessors as secretary of state.
Almost exactly two years ago, Kerry managed to secure the controversial release of a CIA contractor who was arrested in Lahore after he shot and killed two Pakistanis who he said were threatening him.
The Raymond Davis case became the trigger for reflexive nationalism and rampant anti-Americanism and the US threatened to cut off aid even as Islamabad stubbornly refused to release the American.
Thousands took to the Pakistani streets to demand that Davis be hanged and the Taliban promised swift retribution against any Pakistani official who dared help free him.
President Obama stepped into the row but there was no resolution until Kerry showed up — with fervent pleas and (what now appear to be) false promises.
Kerry promised that Davis would be publicly investigated — and, if need be, prosecuted — by the US Justice Department.
He insisted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired, would keep an eye on the process, even declaring “I want my word to be good… let justice speak here in the end.”
But that does not seem to have happened and Davis remains a sore point for any Pakistani with a good memory and a grudge against American high-handedness.
Even so, the point of the Raymond Davis affair is that it illustrates Kerry’s influence in Pakistan.
This can only be an advantage in the strategic shimmying that must now mark America’s final pirouette as it prepares to transition from the Afghan theatre in 2014.
For the last four years, Kerry’s name has been synonymous with something equally controversial for Pakistanis, the Kerry-Lugar Act.
It was the first American aid package to Pakistan advertised as ‘no strings’, but it came elaborately gift-wrapped in conditions that the army denounced as “of serious concern”.
No matter if this legislative good Samaritanism symbolises glorious greenbacks or gross neo-imperialism; the Pakistanis take the money anyway. So Kerry’s name means a lot more in Pakistan than Clinton’s.
Kerry seems very aware of the clout that comes with being the man who pushed American money through to new schools, hospitals and microfinance schemes in Pakistan.
The stupendous supply line was hailed by President Zardari as his country’s largest injection of non-military aid and just weeks ago, Kerry told fellow senators angry at Pakistan’s truculence that America’s best hope is to be soft and silken, not “sledgehammer”.
In an indication that he will probably play good-cop-in-a-bad-situation, he praised Pakistan’s cooperation as “one of the ways we were able to get Osama bin Laden.
I don’t think the Pakistanis have got credit sufficiently… their permissiveness in allowing our people to be there helped us to be able to tie the knots that focused on that, to some degree, not exclusively obviously, but to some degree”.
And he went on to declare, “We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not to diminish it… drones alone will not be able to wipe out the al-Qaeda threat.”
Clearly, Kerry has a plan of sorts for the bitter, barely-together bilateral relationship. Anything would be better than the bluster and bumble of the last few years.
He would be the appropriate therapist, having often talked Pakistan into a different, more receptive mood.
It wouldn’t quite be Dulles, who believed that to be secretary of state, required “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”. But it would decisively answer the question ‘does John Kerry matter’.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist