At the center of many allegations swirling around the Trump administration’s relationship with Moscow is one man: Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. As U.S. intelligence agencies contend that his country attempted, through hacking and other efforts, to influence November’s election, Kislyak’s discussions with Trump campaign associates — including former national security adviser Michael Flynn (who resigned for not disclosing them) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who did not) — have been the subject of intense reporting and speculation.
While it is one thing to question Russia’s efforts or the truthfulness of American officials, this debate is threatening the time-honored tradition of foreign ambassadors freely meeting political figures in their country of accreditation. There is nothing inherently wrong with meeting a foreign ambassador — even one from a rival nation; even one from a rival superpower on which the United States has imposed sanctions. As Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, I saw firsthand, in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, just how essential such consultations were.
We don’t know what Kislyak’s particular motivations were or what he discussed in these meetings, but the question before the American public is whether Trump’s allies comported themselves honorably and legally, not whether Kislyak did. Diplomacy is the process by which foreign enemies are turned into friends and friends are converted into allies. Democratic countries such as the United States have always taken pride in the relative ease with which foreign diplomats can meet Americans of all political persuasions. (This is not the case in more-restrictive nations, such as Russia.) No matter what Moscow’s policy holds, the free interaction of Americans with foreign ambassadors works to America’s advantage.
I became Pakistan’s ambassador in May 2008, soon after the country’s return to civilian rule after nine years of military dictatorship under Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The George W. Bush administration had forged an alliance with Musharraf in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hoping that economic incentives and offers of military hardware would turn Pakistan away from its long-standing policy of supporting Islamist militants, including the Afghan Taliban, as instruments of regional influence.
By 2007, Bush had realized that Musharraf either “would not or could not” fulfill his promises in fighting terrorism, as he wrote later, and the president welcomed Pakistan’s return to democracy. The civilian leaders who appointed me as ambassador — President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — looked forward to U.S. backing in reversing Musharraf’s policies at home and abroad. They said they wanted to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, improve relations with India and Afghanistan, and limit the role of Pakistan’s military intelligence service in defining the country’s foreign policy. In return, they sought generous U.S. aid to improve the ailing Pakistani economy.
I had an advantage most ambassadors did not: I’d lived most of the Musharraf years in exile in Washington and had established close ties with members of Congress and others influential in policymaking. But I began my job in the middle of the 2008 election campaign, and I knew that the Bush administration’s policies might not continue under a new president. Within weeks of presenting my credentials to Bush that June, I was communicating with campaign officials in both parties, and soon had meetings with aides to both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.
The State Department facilitated the participation of Washington-based ambassadors in the Democratic and Republican national conventions that year. In Denver and in Minneapolis-St. Paul, we were briefed by officials from both campaigns. More active and better-connected ambassadors, including myself, were able to meet personally with people we expected to have major roles in the conduct of foreign policy after the election. There was nothing unusual, let alone treasonable, in this.
As a presidential candidate, Obama argued that U.S. success in Afghanistan was more important than the war in Iraq, which he had opposed. In a major speech that summer, he pledged to make “the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority.” He also had a particular message for my country: He said terrorists and insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas were waging war against the Afghan government. “We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.”
From Obama’s public positions and from my meetings with his aides, it was clear that a democratic, civilian government in Pakistan could join with him to help attain his objectives in Afghanistan in exchange for support of consolidation of democracy with greater U.S. economic assistance. I sent this message to my bosses in Islamabad and told Obama’s campaign team that we would be willing to play ball. Once Obama took office, this is exactly what happened: Civilian aid to Pakistan was enhanced to record levels in an effort to secure greater cooperation in defeating the Taliban.
What’s more, the relationships I forged with members of Obama’s campaign team also led to closer cooperation between Pakistan and the United States in fighting terrorism over the three and one half years I served as ambassador. These connections eventually enabled the United States to discover and eliminate bin Laden without depending on Pakistan’s intelligence service or military, which were suspected of sympathy toward Islamist militants. Friends I made from the Obama campaign were able to ask, three years later, as National Security Council officials, for help in stationing U.S. Special Operations and intelligence personnel on the ground in Pakistan. I brought the request directly to Pakistan’s civilian leaders, who approved. Although the United States kept us officially out of the loop about the operation, these locally stationed Americans proved invaluable when Obama decided to send in Navy SEAL Team 6 without notifying Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the United States did not attain victory in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani government’s behavior toward militant Islamists did not change on a permanent basis. But for the period I was in office, the two nations worked jointly toward their common goals — the essence of diplomacy.
After I began reading about the affairs of Kislyak, I rummaged through my files and diaries to retrace my steps as ambassador in the fall of 2008. I maintained relations with three teams of American officials, politicians and professional staffers: the Bush administration and the two major-party candidates. I met senior members of the Republican and Democratic national committees, more than a dozen senators and congressmen from each party, and several individuals from both sides who were tipped to emerge in senior government positions after the election. This is totally normal for ambassadors.
Kislyak, who presented his credentials just a couple of months after I did, has probably advanced shared Russian-American interests through similar contacts in the three U.S. presidential election cycles that he has covered as ambassador. I do not know if he reached out to Hillary Clinton’s camp as vigorously as he did to Trump’s (he probably already knew Clinton’s top foreign policy players from his work with the Obama administration, in which many of them had served), but it does not matter: Ambassadors do not make policy. They only facilitate understanding between countries that leads to policymaking in their respective capitals. Any Russian decision to covertly interfere in the U.S. election would have been made in Moscow, not necessarily with Kislyak’s knowledge, just as Pakistan’s breach of promises with the Obama administration occurred in Islamabad, not in my embassy.
In November 2011, I was forced to resign as ambassador after Pakistan’s military-intelligence apparatus gained the upper hand in the country’s perennial power struggle. Among the security establishment’s grievances against me was the charge that I had facilitated the presence of large numbers of CIA operatives who helped track down bin Laden without the knowledge of Pakistan’s army — even though I had acted under the authorization of Pakistan’s elected civilian leaders.
Russia is, of course, unlike Pakistan, but U.S.-Russia relations have seesawed, too, and Kislyak’s means were no different from what probably every ambassador of every country hopes to use, even if his ends were unique.
Americans have a legitimate interest in figuring out whether Russia tried to covertly influence U.S. politics. Investigating officials who may have perjured themselves about their diplomatic contacts also seems reasonable. It should not, however, create the impression that engagement between a foreign ambassador — even one from a country with which relations are strained — and people who might hold senior positions in a future administration is inherently sinister. Such engagement is essential if new presidents want to translate their foreign policy plans into reality.