Kerry finds old friends, new restrictions in his first trip as secretary of state


Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani speak at a news conference in Doha on Tuesday. (POOL/REUTERS)
March 6, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called his first foreign trip as the nation’s top diplomat a listening tour, but anyone familiar with his 28 years in the Senate or his 2004 presidential run will not be surprised to learn that Kerry did a lot of talking, too.

He sped through nine countries in 11 days, talking to more than 30 prime ministers, presidents and foreign ministers. He spoke French beautifully, German well and English a lot.

Offering a taste of what was to come, he wound up nearly 10 minutes of opening remarks at his first stop in London this way: “Mr. Secretary, in the long history of our partnership and our collaboration, the United States and Great Britain have made our countries both stronger, and we’ve made the world more stable and secure. I think we can be proud of that.

“But we also understand that we come here today with a special commitment to the effort to do our work to make it yet safer and more stable and a place of greater opportunity and peace for all peoples. So we look forward to strengthening this relationship in the years to come, and I personally thank you for your friendship and look forward to your visiting us in the United States so we can reciprocate.”

From London, Kerry went to Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha. For all the Obama administration’s talk of a “pivot to Asia,” historic relationships with European allies and crises in the Middle East were the backbone of Kerry’s carefully scripted debut.

On official business: a look at Secretary of State travel

There were some nice hotels, and some really, really nice hotels. And Kerry took a few nighttime walks, even snapping touristy pictures at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But the heavy diet of official meetings left little time for sightseeing.

Making de rigueur “meet and greet” visits with the staff of U.S. embassies at each stop, Kerry, 69, told variations of the story of his illicit bicycle trip into Communist East Berlin as the 12-year-old son of a Foreign Service officer.

“I’m not going to talk for long,” he told embassy employees in Berlin. Pausing, he said, “Usually in my speeches when I was a senator that was an applause line.”

Kerry reprised the joke in Rome two days later.

As a senior member and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry had already met nearly every foreign official he engaged on the trip, some many times. And he knew the capitals well.

But traveling as secretary of state is a lot different than being a senator, even a powerful and well-traveled one. “It’s more regimented and formal,” Kerry told The Washington Post as he headed home Wednesday.

Indeed, speaking as President Obama’s direct representative is a lot different than speaking one’s own mind, a dictum Kerry increasingly took to heart as the days passed.

“Let me emphasize it’s not the Kerry approach to foreign policy, it’s the Obama approach,” he told an ABC-TV interviewer in Qatar. “It’s President Obama’s approach, and his administration. I certainly will weigh in with my ideas and my views. That’s what he asked me to do in taking on this job.”

That meant Kerry toed the administration line on arming the Syrian rebels, a hot topic that came up at every stop. As a senator, he had voiced some support for greater military assistance to the opposition, but the White House argues that the weapons could too easily fall into the wrong hands.

The best Kerry could do was announce a modest expansion of direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Standing alongside Kerry when he made that announcement in Rome, Syrian Opposition Coalition chief Mouaz al-Khatib left no doubt that he considered the food and medicine small potatoes.

Hillary Rodham Clinton also had to accept the occasional policy difference with Obama while serving as secretary of state, but she had a healthy measure of autonomy. It’s too early to know how much freedom Kerry will have.

What was evident was Kerry’s gift of gab, and his ease on the public stage.

After forgetting to pose and wave for the cameras as he boarded his plane to leave Washington on Feb. 24, he got the hang of it. He waved everywhere. And he retains the politician’s habit of slapping backs and throwing an arm around friends new and old.

Kerry’s oratory appeared to test the patience of Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr. His statement following a meeting with Kerry was six minutes to Kerry’s 16, including time for interpreters.

In Qatar, Kerry met his loquacious equal in Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani. Standing alongside Kerry, Hamad outtalked Kerry, who had to ask permission to finish his opening statement after Hamad mistook a rhetorical pause for a conclusion.

Summing up the trip, Kerry said that he was pleased to reaffirm existing relationships. And he said he sensed a willingness among allies to work with the administration. “There is just a universal sense that this is a moment to get some things done that need to be done,” he said.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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