Secretary of State John Kerry described his first overseas trip as the top U.S. diplomat as a listening tour.
What he heard was disappointment from allies and others who pressed for the U.S. to play a larger role in addressing the crises sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
In London, the U.K. foreign secretary spoke of a “burning need” for the U.S. to revive dormant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In Rome, Syria’s opposition leader said he was “tired of” hearing that terrorism concerns prevent the U.S. from sending weapons to opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
In Cairo, opposition politicians faulted Kerry for not addressing more forcefully human rights issues under the new Egyptian leadership dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Doha, Qatar’s prime minister chided the U.S. for not arming Syrian rebels and for inaction on Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“They want a more robust U.S. policy,” said David Schenker, head of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And they just don’t see it, notwithstanding the appointment of a new secretary of state.”
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said Kerry’s first foray suggests “that he’s going to be the manager in chief of problems, from Syria to Egypt to the Russians, that have no easy solutions and require loads of someone’s time -- just not President Obama’s.”
Kerry returned to Washington yesterday from the 11-day trip that included stops in London; Berlin; Paris; Rome; Ankara, Turkey; Cairo; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abu Dhabi; and Doha.
“Kerry’s got to be pretty satisfied,” with his performance, Miller said in an e-mail. “Nothing heroic, but no howlers or failures either.”
Kerry, in an interview with Bloomberg News, disputed claims that the U.S. isn’t doing enough, citing Syria in particular.
“I understand the impatience of the Syrian opposition, I know it’s frustrating because they think that ‘plunk,’ you just have this weapon or that weapon and it’s over,” Kerry said. “But the fact is that the president believes that this has to be done in a way that doesn’t create more killing before it gives an opportunity to try to make a choice for a peaceful resolution.”
“Maybe we need to do more to make sure people know what we’re doing, but we’re doing a lot,” Kerry said.
The frustration of the Syrian opposition and others in response to Kerry may also reflect the way President Barack Obama has centralized foreign policy decisions, Schenker said.
“If you’re coming with a message that ‘we’re going to review the policy and I have to take this back to Washington,’ that’s not what they want to hear,” said Schenker, a former Pentagon policy official dealing with the Mideast during President George W. Bush’s administration.
Obama’s approach to the Middle East is shaped by the desire to leave a lighter footprint than Bush did with the 2003 Iraq invasion, say analysts such as Michele Dunne, head of the Middle East center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
When the CIA, Pentagon and State Department under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the White House last year to arm Syria’s rebels, the president said no. The administration also hasn’t embraced other military options, including creating a protected aid corridor or a Libya-like no-fly zone to ground the Syrian air force.
In Rome, Kerry countered criticism that new U.S. aid to Syrian fighters -- medicine and ready-to-eat meals -- is inadequate by arguing that the U.S. contribution had to be seen in the context of all international aid going to the rebels.
The region’s stew of troubles has global implications. North Africa is becoming an incubator for terrorism, as seen by the recent attack by Islamist groups in Mali that drew French military intervention. The uncertain outcome of democratic movements in Yemen, Libya and Egypt could lead to further destabilization across a region crucial to global oil supplies.
Political turmoil is intensifying economic strains in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. Egypt’s foreign reserves are down more than 60 percent from before the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak. Political tensions and violence have kept away tourists and investors and have prolonged talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $4.8 billion loan.
In Egypt, where Kerry offered President Mohamed Mursi $190 million in budget support and $60 million for an Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund, Egyptians such as Emad Gad, deputy director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Kerry should have spoken more strongly about human rights.
Gad, a former lawmaker in the now-dissolved lower house of parliament, said Egypt’s political opposition thinks the U.S. is siding with the Muslim Brotherhood because it “got what it wants from the group: Israel’s security, preserving the peace agreement, mediation with Hamas and guaranteeing of U.S. interests in the region.”
Kerry’s trip was publicly dominated by the two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has taken more than 70,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people. Kerry said he wanted to hear from rebel officials at a Feb. 28 international conference in Rome what they need.
Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib called for humanitarian corridors and weapons supplies, which he referred to as “giving the Syrian people and its revolutionaries the right to defend themselves.” When Kerry announced the U.S. would send non-lethal aid directly to rebel fighters for the first time and give $60 million to the political opposition, Syrians expressed disappointment.
Abdelbaset Sieda, a former head of the Syrian National Council, the biggest faction in the Syrian National Coalition, said he appreciated the help “but $60 million is too little, especially from a country like the United States.”
“We need weapons to defend civilians against the shelling of tanks and warplanes and we need Patriots to protect civilians against Scud missiles,” he said by phone from Irbil, Iraq.
Kerry told Bloomberg News that the U.S. decided to begin direct aid to Syrian rebels in a “measured and thoughtful way” that was meant to send a message.
“The president is saying to President Assad, ‘look, we’re ratcheting up and we’re committed,’” Kerry said. “You have an opportunity here to be able to make a choice to have a peaceful outcome.’”
‘I don’t think we’re finished at all in terms of aiding the opposition,’’ he added.
The administration has said that weapons provided to Syrian rebels might strengthen radical Islamist factions such as the al-Nusra Front, which the U.S. labels a terrorist group. That concern has eased as the U.S. has seen “greater guarantees” the weapons are going to moderates, Kerry said during the trip.
Still, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, who is also foreign minister, said at a press conference with Kerry that U.S. concern about terrorism “was blown out of proportion.” The Qatari leader also cited fading Arab hopes to see a U.S. push for the Mideast peace process.
“We felt optimistic when President Obama came to power,” because he spoke about an effort to achieve a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, al-Thani said. Since then, he said, “we wait for it to be activated.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since September 2010 and Kerry has indicated he wants to revive them. He met briefly in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and he plans to travel to Israel and the West Bank later this month with Obama.
In Berlin, Kerry told students Feb. 26 that he and Obama won’t “plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do. I want to consult, and the President wants to listen.”
Kerry’s counterparts urged him to do more than just consult. In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told him “there is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013 than restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”