Kerry’s Trip Dominated by Challenges From Syria to Mali

Secretary of State John Kerry is quickly differentiating himself from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, by making his first official trip to Europe and the Mideast, while she made a point of heading first to Asia.

In contrast to Clinton, who spearheaded a U.S. “pivot to Asia,” Kerry is reverting to well-trod diplomatic terrain, meeting with key Western allies and continuing to the Arab world that’s long been a quagmire for American diplomacy.

The Middle East and North Africa will dominate his trip as he consults with U.S. allies on Islamic extremism in Mali, Egypt’s deteriorating economic situation, the Syrian civil war that threatens to destabilize the region further, and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. While President Barack Obama has signaled his intent to pursue a more hands-off U.S. policy in conflict areas, Kerry’s early comments suggest that the new secretary of state has ambitions to leave a mark on the region.

“In general, the Obama administration’s preference has been to decrease the high level of intervention in the Middle East, but these problems have a way of forcing themselves upon you,” said Daniel Byman, a security studies professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “It may be hard to say, ’No, we don’t want to be involved.’”

Obama’s 2009 “new beginning” speech in Cairo reflected his administration’s hopes that supporting the removal of the region’s authoritarian rulers would lead to greater democracy and better relations between the Islamic world and the U.S. Instead, a tide of instability has swept from Mali to Iraq, while Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have remained frozen since 2010 and Iran has continued enriching uranium.

Oil, Shipping

Kerry, a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts who took office Feb. 1, has made clear his interest in asserting a prominent American role by attempting to thaw the talks between Israelis and Palestinians and broker an exit for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He said Feb. 12 that he was drafting diplomatic proposals to that end.

Kerry’s choice to head to the region -- home to key U.S. military bases, crucial shipping routes and about 30 percent of world oil supplies -- was applauded by analysts such as Michele Dunne who warn of the dangers when the U.S. pulls back.

“President Obama was very clear he was all about getting out of the Middle East, and these enormous tectonic shifts in the region don’t seem to be changing his mind,” said Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “But it’s important to see that not acting has costs and presents big risks to U.S. interests.”

Russia Talks

Kerry is due to arrive in London today and to meet tomorrow in Berlin with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to address their differences in dealing with the Assad regime. The secretary of state will go on to Paris, Rome and Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Along the way, he will sit down with Syrian opposition members, discuss the flow of arms from post-revolutionary Libya to Islamic extremists and review support for Mali’s government. He’ll then go to Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Doha, Qatar.

Kerry’s initial Mideast tour -- he plans to go to Israel next month with Obama -- doesn’t lack for challenges. The Arab Spring protest movement has created leadership vacuums and heightened public discontent as weak new regimes have had difficulty stamping out corruption and delivering the security and economic opportunity protesters are demanding.

Youth unemployment rates in North Africa and the Middle East are projected to remain higher than 25 percent for the next five years, and might rise higher in some nations, according to a November 2012 report by the International Labor Organization.

Approaching Bankruptcy

Egypt, a signatory to the 1978 Camp David peace accord with Israel, is approaching bankruptcy, with only enough currency reserves to cover three months’ of food and fuel imports. The turmoil is jeopardizing $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, about 80 percent of it for the military, and a long-pending $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Egyptians are facing an official 13 percent jobless rate and 6.3 percent consumer price inflation. That gives Egypt the sixth-worst misery rate -- inflation plus the unemployment rate -- among 59 nations tracked by Bloomberg.

Egypt can’t emerge from its economic crisis without reaching an accord with the IMF, Planning and Investment Minister Ashraf El-Arabi told reporters Feb. 21 in Cairo.

With its economic hardships, recurring protests and political gridlock, Egypt is already a problematic partner, said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Security Studies in London.

Egypt ‘Convulsed’

“An Egypt that’s convulsed by violence every few months is not a reliable partner for the U.S. and cannot be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain on the peace process,” Hokayem said.

Almost 70,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war, and violence has spilled into Lebanon and Jordan, as have more than 850,000 refugees. The Jordanian monarchy, a pro-Western bulwark that provides Israel with a secure border, faces political unrest over the pace of promised reforms.

In Morocco, where the official unemployment rate in the cities exceeds 13 percent, political opposition is warning of popular revolt. Tunisia’s newly democratic government is in disarray after an opposition politician’s assassination.

Libya has restored oil production -- and with it the nation’s gross domestic product -- since the 2001 uprising that toppled leader Muammar Qaddafi. Still, the weak new government has little control over the country, allowing weapons from Qaddafi’s stockpiles to fall into the hands of Islamic militants in Africa’s Sahel region, where France has sent troops to battle them in Mali.

U.S. Reluctance

Obama has made clear that the U.S. won’t be as actively engaged in the Sahel, the semi-arid underbelly of North Africa that some have said is becoming a terrorist haven, or elsewhere.

In his State of the Union speech Feb. 12, he said the U.S. doesn’t have to send “tens of thousands of our sons and daughters” to the latest clash with Islamic extremism. Instead, he said, it’s enough to help countries help themselves.

Dunne, of the Atlantic Council, said that the contagious collapse of Syria could force the Obama administration to get more involved, especially as it could trigger more sectarian conflict in Iraq.

“Syria is already in a disaster scenario, and we can see the ripple effects on the neighbors, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Turkey,” she said

Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group, said in an interview that “events in the Middle East have been so fast-paced, policy hasn’t been able to keep up.”

Along with the administration’s decision to pull back from some direct engagement, “we’ve lost a great deal of access, we’re flying blind in a lot of cases,” he said of the U.S. reach in the Arab world.

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