Secretary of State John Kerry returns tomorrow to the United States after his first foreign trip as a member of the Obama Administration. It is probably with a sense of relief.
Kerry did charm some of the European media (not exactly a difficult task) by showing off his language skills. But when it came to the ill-conceived U.S. policy toward Syria and the harsh realities of the Middle East, Kerry was the object of snubs and cold shoulders.
In Rome, Kerry made headlines by offering a half-hearted $60 million aid package to the Syrian rebels at the “Friends of Syria” conference that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the trip. Washington lawmakers were taken aback by the offer, having had no warning of the Administration’s change in policy. And the Syrian opposition, whom the offer of food and medicine (but not arms) was meant to help, actually took umbrage.
“This is becoming degrading,” said Mohammad Sarmini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, which makes up the main body of the Syrian opposition. “The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?” A Syrian activist quoted by The Wall Street Journal called the American offer “nonsense and lies to people who are dying.”
In Turkey, a frosty reception followed Kerry’s belated criticism on Friday of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s outrageous statement that Zionism is one of the “crimes against humanity” at a U.N. conference two days before. In fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stuck to his guns and accused Israel of being the regional aggressor at a joint news conference with Kerry. So there.
Meanwhile, Erdogan was distinctly miffed when the U.S. delegation arrived one hour late for a meeting at the Turkish leader’s residence, saying pointedly that Kerry and Davutoglu “must have spoken about everything so there is nothing left for us to talk about.”
In Egypt, Kerry arrived Sunday bearing promises of $250 million in aid for the government of President Mohammad Morsi, he of the Muslim Brotherhood. This did not sit well with Egyptian opposition leaders and moderate political activists, who criticized the Obama Administration of being uncritically close to the Morsi government. Commented Gameela Ismail, a leader of the National Salvation Front, “You [the Obama Administration] have supported…military rule, and now you are supporting a religious rule just because it serves your interests.”
Meanwhile, Mohammed Elbaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and opposition politician, refused to attend a discussion with Kerry in protest over U.S. policy.
Mostly, Kerry demonstrated on his trip that there is a world of difference between being Secretary of State with responsibility for policy formation and difficult negotiations and a U.S. Senator with a lot of opinions on U.S. foreign policy. Moving the ball forward is a lot harder than it seems.