Kerry's first trip: trying to sidestep the pitfalls

Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 3:38pm

John Kerry's first international trip as secretary of state is right out of diplomatic "central casting" -- at least the first half, designed to avoid diplomatic pitfalls. But that may end up being impossible.

The 11-day, nine-country sojourn -- to England, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar -- begins with a warm embrace for America's traditional European allies.

Four years ago, his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, headed east, as part of the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia." Kerry will reassure Europe that it still matters to Washington. What's more, the administration needs Europe's help on the heavy-lifting issues of stopping Iran's nuclear program and for any next steps to help the Syrian opposition.

But even before he departs Washington, there's trouble. On Saturday, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, angered about what it called international inaction on Syrian government attacks against Aleppo, announced it was boycotting an international meeting in Rome where its representatives were expected to meet Kerry.

Shortly afterward, the U.S. State Department condemned the attacks "in the strongest possible terms."

Another wildcard on this trip is Egypt, where anti-government protests continue as the nation's economy struggles. But the State Department says don't expect Kerry to chart any new policy on this trip. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters: "He's characterizing this first trip more broadly as a listening tour."

Just days before his trip, in his first major foreign policy address, Kerry made the case to an American audience why the stakes for U.S. global engagement are so high.

"In today's global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy," he said. "More than ever before, the decisions that we make from the safety of our shores don't just ripple outward, they also create a current right here in America."

Former high-level diplomats say the eyes of the world will be on Kerry during this trip -- and on where he flies. Nicholas Burns, former under-secretary of state for political affairs, tells CNN: "The first trips by American secretaries of state are watched very closely. There is a lot of symbolism attached to them. People look for clues as to which region is most important to the United States."

Inevitably, Kerry will be compared with Clinton, who had sky-high popularity around the world.

"Nobody is the rock star Hillary Clinton is," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says.

But Kerry, who, as a 12-year-old boy, lived in Berlin, brings his own credentials. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he got to know many world leaders. He served as President Barack Obama's personal envoy for delicate political missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Albright says Kerry is more than ready to take the lead as America's top diplomat to the world.

"I have known him a very long time and, as somebody who comes from the Foreign Relations Committee, he has clearly dealt with all the issues and understands their background and depth -- and the kind of the unintended consequences of various decisions."

That last phrase may be crucial. Most of this first trip is designed to be diplomatically safe. But plans made in Washington are one thing. The reality on the road, especially in Syria and the rest of the Middle East, is another.

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