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Kerry's Agenda: Priorities Emerge With Travel


The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been in the Middle East, Rome and Russia this week trying to find some kind of diplomatic end to Syria's civil war. He's also been trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mr. Kerry has been the U.S. secretary of state for just over 100 days, spending more than a third of that time overseas.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how his tenure at the State Department seems to be shaping up.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It's a job that caps a long career in public service and it's likely to be his last chance to make his mark on U.S. foreign policy, so Kerry has been diving right in, spending a lot of time on the thorniest issues in the Middle East.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Because for 30 years or more, there has been a pent-up demand to try to resolve the issues of the Middle East and it is clear that when left to a vacuum or when left to delay, bad things happen.

KELEMEN: Count Israel's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, among those who appreciate what she calls Kerry's enthusiasm.

TZIPI LIVNI: What you are doing recreate hope in the region, because some of us lost hope.

KELEMEN: She met Kerry this past week at the villa in Rome where the U.S. ambassador lives and chatted outside for a bit about how nice it would be to have peace talks in such beautiful surroundings. The Obama administration has never been able to get Israelis and Palestinians to the table to negotiate final status issues, but Kerry is trying once again.

KERRY: And we all believe that we're working with a short time span.

KELEMEN: On Syria, Secretary Kerry spent hours in intense talks in Moscow with Russian leaders on how to work together to persuade the warring sides to set up a transitional government. Otherwise, Kerry warns, Syria is heading to an abyss.

KERRY: The current path will only lead to greater bloodshed, greater destruction, greater instability, a greater humanitarian crisis, a greater challenge to the stability of neighboring states, to the potential of extremists becoming stronger and the potential of chemical weapons falling into the hands of dangerous people.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Russia are now planning for another international conference on Syria. It's not at all clear that this new diplomatic effort will work any better than last year's confab in Geneva, but Kerry thinks it's worth the try. And he is hardwired to negotiate, says Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

MICHAEL AUSLIN: The real problem is that he is going down a lot of the same paths that have borne absolutely no fruit before, so while the spirit is to be commended, I think we should be concerned if what we're going to see is a repeat of American attempts to just get other people around the table without really understanding whether or not there's a chance of success.

KELEMEN: Auslin is most worried about Kerry's approach to North Korea, where once again, the U.S. is pinning its hopes on China to step up the pressure on Pyongyang to get back to denuclearization talks.

AUSLIN: It is the worst cliche, but it's also the truest cliche. You know, you can bring a horse to water but you can't make it drink. We have brought numerous parties to the negotiating table for decades but we never seem to be able to really break the logjams until they are ready to do it.

KELEMEN: Back home, Kerry seems to be having a tough time filling jobs at the State Department. The White House vetting process is apparently slowing him down. A former State Department official, Rick Inderfurth of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Kerry has work to do in Washington.

RICK INDERFURTH: The home front is important for any secretary of state to pay close attention to but I think with the inclination to get to places where problems are taking place, I think that, you know, like that song of Willie Nelson, "On the Road Again," I think that John Kerry's going to be doing a lot of that.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry is going to an Arctic Council meeting in Sweden next week and later this month, heads back to the Middle East. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.