John Kerry's maiden voyage as US secretary of state includes four stops in the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. As the saying goes, he has only one chance to make a first impression – and what is said and not said on this visit will have repercussions for years to come.
Stopping first in Egypt made sense given its centrality to the Arab world and its continuing turbulence. It is impossible to know with certainty the message Mr Kerry conveyed in private to his hosts. But one hopes he introduced a sense of strict conditionality into US policy. The aim should not be that President Mohamed Morsi and his government succeed no matter what. Rather, US policy should be that Washington is prepared to work with and on behalf of Mr Morsi and a Muslim Brotherhood-led government only so long as they demonstrate a sustained commitment to pluralism at home – and to acting as a reliable partner abroad, be it with regard to Israel, Iran or Hamas.
If Mr Morsi is unable or unwilling to make such a commitment, and to follow through on it, Mr Kerry should signal that he and his colleagues in Washington are prepared to see this government fall – and to support those Egyptians who are prepared to be reliable partners.
Elsewhere on his journey, Mr Kerry is likely to find governments are preoccupied with the civil war in Syria and with Iran, which for them tends to be much the same thing. Before arriving, the new secretary of state announced a new policy: one of providing direct but non-lethal support to selected members of the Syrian opposition. While welcome, this is unlikely to have been enough for Arab leaders or their subjects, all of whom feel strongly about how their fellow Sunnis have suffered and are deeply concerned about the growing reach and role of Iran in that country and beyond.
Here, Mr Kerry will be wise to urge discrimination on who is armed along with the need for preparations for Syria's next phase. As welcome as the ejection of the odious President Bashar al-Assad would be, it is vital that he is not succeeded by chaos and civil war that could claim tens of thousands of additional lives or by a new government that treats the majority of the Syrian people as badly as, or worse than, he and his father did. This means making the case for arming only those with an inclusive agenda for Syria – and making real preparations for an Arab or international peacekeeping force to help stabilise and rebuild the country.
Iran will be on the minds of everyone, but not in the same way. The US is most worried about Tehran's nuclear capabilities and intentions; Arab governments, while sharing this worry, are no less concerned about its bid for regional primacy. Needed are conversations about how best to meet both challenges. It would be good to try to forge agreement on the principal elements of a negotiated approach to the nuclear problem – what will be demanded and what would be allowed and offered in return. Arab priorities reinforce the importance of a meeting of the minds on Syria, the theatre in which Iran's influence in the area is most likely to be decided.
Mr Kerry should also urge the Saudi leadership to consider what it should be doing internally to reduce the chances of finding itself in exile or worse some time this decade. Reducing corruption, deciding on succession, granting more rights to girls and women – all would be steps in the right direction. Alas, it will not be easy for Mr Kerry to prove more persuasive with the House of Saud than his predecessors were with the House of Mubarak in Egypt.
Last but not least, it would be wise for the new secretary of state to raise the Israel-Palestinian issue. I say this not because it is ripe for breakthrough or because progress here would make it easier to deal with other pressing challenges. But the current situation works against the interests of the US, Israel and the Arabs, and there is no good reason to delay preparing governments and their citizens for inevitable compromises. What is more, Mr Kerry and his boss, President Barack Obama, are scheduled to visit Israel next month; they only have a chance of influencing the new government there if they can point to their willingness to speak truth to power on the present trip.
The author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, 'Foreign Policy Begins at Home', is published in April
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