When Hamid Karzai Speaks, Fareed Zakaria Listens

Around the world, nostalgia for George W. Bush’s foreign diplomacy might be in short supply these days. But not long ago, Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and the host of CNN’s world affairs program GPS, listened with curiosity as one foreign head of state spoke wistfully of the bygone era of the 43rd president of the United States.

“President George Bush is a great person,” said Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. “I have a lot of respect for him.” 

It was the morning of Thursday, Feb. 12, and Mr. Zakaria was sitting in a television studio in New York, conducting a taped interview via satellite with Mr. Karzai, who was sitting some 6,700 miles away in a regal-looking chair with purple upholstery and golden arms in the presidential palace in Kabul.

In recent months, Mr. Karzai, who came into power with U.S. backing during the Bush administration, has been struggling to regain his footing during the ongoing transition of power in Washington. President Bush understood him. But did President Obama? As of that Thursday morning, Mr. Obama had—still!—yet to reach out and speak to Mr. Karzai directly. Feelings were growing sensitive. Was it too much of a bother for the new guy to pick up the phone?

While awaiting official contact with Washington, Mr. Karzai decided to adopt a proactive approach and so he granted a rare on-camera interview to Mr. Zakaria at CNN.

Mr. Zakaria’s hour-long GPS (which “stands for” Global Public Square) kicked off in the summer of 2008. From the get-go, unlike most Sunday public affairs programs such as Meet the Press and This Week, GPS set out to lure political leaders and thinkers onto the show from outside the Beltway and outside America. Part of Mr. Zakaria’s booking pitch to world leaders has been to emphasize his reach: U.S. policy makers in Washington and New York as well as viewers in London and Moscow and New Delhi—even in Kabul.

On the first episode, Mr. Zakaria interviewed Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Since then, he has racked up exclusives with a number of foreign heads of state, including Wen Jiabao, the elusive premier of China; Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs; and Rania Al-Yassin, the queen of Jordan.

Mr. Zakaria’s exclusive with Mr. Karzai came at a crucial time in U.S.-Afghanistan relations. By all accounts, the war in Afghanistan is not going well. Reports of governmental corruption are widespread, the Taliban is resurgent and President Obama is currently working on a strategic review of U.S. operations in the region.

With elections in Afghanistan set to take place later this year, Mr. Karzai’s continued central role in the reshaping of the country is by no means guaranteed. (In a recent interview with the Afghan TV network Tolo, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, declined to endorse Mr. Karzai.) All of which paved the road for the appearance on GPS.

“I think he felt under attack,” Mr. Zakaria told The Observer in the aftermath of the interview. “And he felt this would be a chance to defend himself on charges of corruption.

“This is a government that couldn’t be sustained without American military, economic and political support at every level,” Mr. Zakaria added. “I think Karzai is a very shrewd politician in understanding it’s not just three people in Washington that he needs. He needs a fairly broad basis of support. So he’s making his case to the American public.”

Throughout the interview, Mr. Karzai carefully alternated between praise for the American troops and warnings that they needed to do a better job of avoiding civilian casualties and collateral damage in Afghan villages. 

“I watched that and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who is playing to both the Afghan political audience and the American political audience simultaneously,” said Mr. Zakaria.

“If Karzai wants to give an interview that’s going to be watched in Washington and in Kabul simultaneously, there aren’t that many forums that can do that,” said Mr. Zakaria. “And I’m willing to give him the space to explain his views and to elaborate on them.”

When Hamid Karzai Speaks, Fareed Zakaria Listens