WASHINGTON — Far from the staid chambers of the Senate, Secretary of State John Kerry has been presented with a full plate of global crises as he plots his maiden voyage abroad: Egypt in chaos, Syria engulfed in civil war, moribund Mideast peace talks and North Korea threatening to detonate an atomic bomb while Iran moves closer to developing one of its own.
As he seals his transition from legislator to diplomat with his first official trip overseas, Kerry will have to deal with all of these unresolved diplomatic crises even as he looks to put his personal stamp on American foreign policy by cementing traditional trans-Atlantic ties with U.S. allies and preparing for President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to the Middle East.
Washington-based diplomats say the former Massachusetts senator and 2004 presidential candidate is likely to embark on his first trip as secretary to Europe and the Middle East in the last week of February.
The exact itinerary has yet to be determined, but Kerry is expected in several European capitals and Israel, the Palestinian territories and possibly Egypt, according to the diplomats.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. The State Department declined to comment on Kerry’s potential travel plans.
The trip will highlight some of the issues Kerry has been most deeply engaged in over 28 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the last four as chairman: U.S.-European cooperation over such issues as pacifying Afghanistan and fighting climate change, addressing the rising terror threat from North Africa and finally pressing Israelis and Palestinians into finding some kind of path toward a two-state peace agreement.
With each problem, there is no easy answer — an old adage of diplomacy that Kerry learned well as an unofficial Obama envoy to Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, but never before as the point-man for administration policy.
Just hours before Kerry was sworn in to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, militants provided a stark reminder of the inherent danger in American diplomacy as a suicide bomber struck the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. And in the days since, Japan claimed that China locked weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter amid an escalating maritime dispute between the Asian powers.
“This is a complicated time in the world,” Kerry told a visiting group of college students in marked understatement on his third day at the State Department.
Thus far, he has spent most of his time to getting to know his staff and speaking to foreign leaders, and little time publicly talking geopolitics. He echoed the White House’s call last week for tougher European Union action against Hezbollah and decried Pyongyang’s threat of a third nuclear test. And at his first official news conference Friday, he warned Iran to seriously approach upcoming nuclear talks with world powers and declared that the Obama administration was exploring new options — primarily diplomatic — to stem the violence in Syria.
Going abroad will be a bigger challenge.
In Europe and the Mideast, Kerry will come face-to-face on foreign soil with demanding allies and estranged partners. He’ll have to introduce himself — again — to people around the world who may often distrust America’s overwhelming military and diplomatic power, or fear a more withdrawn U.S. foreign policy might empower international rivals such as China or rogues like Iran to expand their international influence.
For the U.S., the powder keg of the Middle East is providing particular concern right now. The attack in Turkey, while blamed on leftist militants and not Islamic radicals, raised the specter yet again of the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, siege on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, for which no one has been brought to justice five months later. And there has been instability across the countries where the Arab Spring was supposed to usher in a new era of democracy.
Egypt is struggling to plow forward while the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and opposition battle over the future shape of their political system. Hardline clerics are trying to justify sexual assaults on women protesters and issuing death edicts against opposition leaders.
In Syria, the regime of President Bashar Assad — whom Kerry previously tried to coax into closer relations with the United States — is locked in fierce clashes with rebels across the country in some of the heaviest fighting in months. Some 60,000 people have been killed in the Arab country’s two-year civil war and the violence is increasingly threatening to expand beyond Syria’s borders, as illustrated by Israel’s recent strike against a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah.
Obama called for Assad to leave power in August 2011, but the U.S. has yet to devise a strategy to make that happen.
“We’re taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with that situation,” Kerry said last week, speaking to reporters for the first time as secretary of state.
The U.S., meanwhile, is trying to shore up its alliance with its closest ally in the region — Israel.
The White House announced last week that Obama will make his first presidential visit to the country in the spring.
Kerry’s solo trip to Israel is meant as a preparatory visit, but neither he nor the president will unveil any new initiative to end more than six decades of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, U.S. officials said.
Instead, the talks will focus on building trust for longer-term peace efforts between the parties, as well as shared U.S.-Israeli concerns over Syria and Iran. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The same subjects are likely to be main topics of conversation when Kerry hosts Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, a key mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, on Wednesday.
Kerry then welcomes Thursday to the State Department the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, through whom the U.S. has directed its diplomacy with Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
The United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia are sending senior negotiators to meet with an Iranian delegation in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26, hoping to end years of stalemate with the Islamic republic over uranium enrichment activity that much of the world sees as the foundation to future nuclear weapons production. Iran insists its program is designed for peaceful energy and medical research purposes.