Kerry's first big trip

His itinerary is a good one; let's see if he makes something of it

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry's nine-stop trip through March 6 to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar will give Americans and important U.S. partners a good chance to see his fastball and other pitches as a potentially credible successor to Hillary R. Clinton.

Among other things, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Kerry holds up under the demands of a different country and setting every day. Ms. Clinton was a glutton for punishment in that regard, although her December collapse may have been the cumulative result of four years of grueling scheduling.

Mr. Kerry's choice of first stop, the United Kingdom, made sense. British governments have stayed with us through trying times during both the Bush and Obama administrations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain's involvement in Iraq contributed to the downfall of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government in 2007. Mr. Blair was even called "Bush's poodle."

Mr. Kerry visits the United Kingdom as its population is feeling the bite of an austerity program initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron, in part a result of Iraq and Afghanistan war expenditures. The latest indignity in the country's economic decline was the downgrading Friday of its creditworthiness. It's hard to say if Mr. Kerry's stop in Great Britain will help Mr. Cameron.

In Berlin, Mr. Kerry will seek to tailor the impact of America's intention to withdraw two Army brigades from Germany. The Germans can't argue that the brigades are needed; they can pay for their own defense. With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union is no longer a threat and U.S. troops certainly are no longer needed to sit on a potentially dangerous Germany.

Mr. Kerry will also need to impress on a politically beleaguered Chancellor Angela Merkel the continued need for Germany to play a financially stabilizing role in maintaining the euro and the European Union. The stability of the U.S. economy depends on a healthy Europe. Germany is paying a painful price to help assure this; its own economy shrank in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The French will seek assurance from Mr. Kerry that the United States will continue to provide military support for their African adventure in Mali. America is providing intelligence, refueling, transport and other assistance in what is a completely irrelevant war for the United States -- presumably to help France, a NATO ally. France plans soon to wind up its military intervention in Mali. Mr. Kerry should encourage it to do so promptly, making clear U.S. discomfort at being involved there when the United States is cutting its defense expenditures.

Mr. Kerry is going to Italy to explain why the United States is withdrawing an Air Force squadron from the country. He hopes also to meet with other foreign ministers and the Syrian opposition in Rome. Those Syrian dears were threatening to boycott the meeting on the grounds that they haven't been given as much money as they believe they have been promised to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime. Mr. Kerry has now promised them more. Italy had elections Sunday and Monday and it remains unclear who is in charge there.

In Turkey, the new secretary will find an Islamic country increasingly active in efforts to resolve Middle Eastern problems such as the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian tangle. A longstanding NATO member, it has become a recipient of numerous refugees from neighboring Syria. It also is a target of Kurdish irredentism, strengthened by the U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq. Turkey needs U.S. attention to reinforce mutual understanding and cooperation in the region.

In Egypt, Mr. Kerry will encourage President Muhammad Morsi to pursue rational, conciliatory policies toward his opposition to keep them out of the streets and, thus, to improve prospects for economic development. Egypt's tourist industry, a key sector, has suffered from the unrest there. Mr. Kerry will also meet with Nabil Elaraby, leader of the 22-member Arab League, another key Middle Eastern actor.

The traditional relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia remains important because of the Saudis' oil and stabilizing influence in a dicey region. Mr. Kerry will also meet there with representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council, another important regional body. The United Arab Emirates are a large U.S. arms customer and a supporter of the Syrian opposition.

Qatar hosts a U.S. military base, provided support to the Libyan rebels, furnishes aid to Syrian groups and sponsors the media outlet Al Jazeera. It is also willing to host the Afghan Taliban for talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, potentially an important piece of a U.S. political exit from that country.

Mr. Kerry has been criticized for not including Israel on his first trip, accused of a sort of lese-majeste. A reason given for the pass-over has been that Israel is still putting together a post-election coalition government. That doesn't really wash since he's going to Italy, which is in the same situation. Another, better reason is that President Barack Obama himself will be visiting Israel in March.

This trip is an excellent, ambitious one for a new secretary of state. In spite of Mr. Obama's "pivot to Asia," Europe and the Middle East remain essential pieces of the foreign policy puzzle that Mr. Kerry has been handed. He'll see key people and hear their points of view on issues such as trade, finances, the roles of NATO, Israel, Palestine and Syria.

Some of what he hears will be shocking, but these are the people and issues who are now his to wrestle with.

dansimpson

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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