Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. Secretary
What John Kerry needs to know about his first assignment.
Dear Secretary Kerry,
Congratulations on your first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. You start with some real advantages: The president clearly trusts your judgment and will listen to your ideas, you already have extensive relationships with leaders in the region, and you can devote yourself fully to this job without worrying about what comes next. That’s important, since obsessing about your "legacy" on day one is the best way to ensure that you won’t have one. You know that nobody cares about your frequent-flier miles, and you don’t want to be known as Louis Vuitton John. This trip is your first chance — and perhaps your only chance — to show the people and leaders of the region what you want to achieve over the next four years.
Everyone you meet on this trip is trying to figure out the priorities of the new administration. You no doubt are looking to build relationships and solicit strategic cooperation from the leaders you meet, but if you try to smooth over those first encounters by avoiding democracy and human rights concerns, don’t expect to be able to introduce them later. So set the right tone from the beginning. Your itinerary is a good start, signaling your focus on the two countries that will shape the region’s future: Egypt and Syria.
It sounds like you’re already on the right track on Syria, with the Rome conference. Increasing direct non-military support for the Syrian opposition is the right way to proceed, as you did with your new pledge of $60 million in non-lethal aid. You should focus broadly on building the Syrian opposition’s political institutions and influence on the ground, rather than fixate narrowly on arming them.
Your comments thus far — such as your remark that the United States would not leave the opposition "dangling in the wind" — suggest that you recognize the need for more assertive international action to deal with the nigh-incomprehensible levels of devastation in Syria. But they also show that you understand that Bashar al-Assad’s fall would be a short-lived triumph if it is followed by state failure, endemic warlordism, and ethnic cleansing — which is where a strategy based primarily on the uncoordinated arming of rebels is likely to lead. The Saudis may have visions of their "successful" support of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets dancing in their heads; you should remember what happened next. You need to show Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that you’ve got a plan that will work, and convince the Syrian opposition that you’re serious about it. Good luck.
Syria’s not all you’ll talk about in the Gulf. You’re probably going to hear a bit of triumphalism about Gulf leaders’ "success" in riding out the Arab Spring and their wisdom in resisting the winds of change. In the UAE especially, you’ll probably get an earful about the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood and how foolish the United States has been in Egypt. Don’t buy it. It would be foolish to believe that the Arab world has returned to "normal" and that you can safely expect to work quietly with stable authoritarian regimes. True, the Gulf monarchies managed to prevent any of their team from getting tossed from the throne, for now. But there are deep, fundamental processes of change still unfolding which are likely to lead to real turbulence at some point during your tenure.
And don’t fall for the popular line that the monarchies have some unique recipe for stability. The Gulf kingdoms, especially Saudi Arabia, have spent heavily on short-term political stability — but their level of spending may prove unsustainable if the price of oil should drop significantly. Their societies are changing rapidly: A rising generation of wired citizens is placing escalating demands on their rulers, and their expectations of social, economic, and political change thus far remain unmet. This is true beyond the Gulf, of course — don’t be fooled by the narrative of a successful Jordanian election, which didn’t do much to address the fundamental underlying problems in the Hashemite Kingdom.
Get out in front of this by pushing the region’s royals on the urgency of political reform — and letting them know from the start that the new administration cares about these issues. The Gulf leaders you meet are not going to want to hear about democracy or human rights, but if you don’t bring up these issues on this trip they will be seen as off the table for the foreseeable future.
In Saudi Arabia, find the time to mention American concerns over the prosecution of human rights campaigners, such as Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani. You should also push the Gulf states on Bahrain’s ongoing refusal to seriously engage with the fallout from its brutal campaign to repress a domestic uprising in 2011, which was extensively documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. They may think that the Bahrain crisis is over, but you should make it clear that the United States does not.
When you get to Egypt — well, good luck. You will need to convey to President Mohamed Morsy that you want to build a productive working relationship with him, as a democratically elected leader — while also clearly conveying U.S. concern over the country’s ongoing instability, polarization, and human rights abuses. It will be a tricky task, but you would be wrong to send only one message or the other. You need to make clear that you can only work with the Egyptian leadership or support its bid for international economic assistance if it gives you something to work with. You should maintain firm support for the democratic process, but also speak out consistently and loudly when the government undermines democracy, violates human rights, or destabilizes the country’s politics.
And the Egyptian opposition? You should urge them to participate in the parliamentary elections, even if they have already rebuffed American advice on this topic. Boycotts almost never work, and this one is likely to simply hand the Muslim Brotherhood an iron grip on the new parliament, which will overstate its level of support in the country.
Opposition leaders’ announcement of a boycott is particularly disappointing because the election was perfectly teed up for them to make significant gains based on the simple message that the Brotherhood has failed to improve the economy, govern effectively, or stabilize the country. The Brotherhood has lost much of its ability to attract support or allies on its left, has antagonized the Salafis who might have made up a unified Islamic list, and has done little to capture the "stability" vote. So find out what specifically the opposition needs to get into the campaign without losing face, convince Morsy to give it to them, and then push hard for a fair race. For one, pressure Morsy to send the election law back to the Supreme Constitutional Court, which was not given the chance to rule on its legality following recent changes to the legislation. It’s better for Egypt to do this before the election instead of risking that the parliament would be dissolved on technical grounds afterwards.
Last bit of advice: Engage broadly and widely with the public when you make all of these trips. Your predecessor was very good at this, and you should continue the practice. Don’t fall into the easy habit of only meeting with top politicians and then holding a press conference. Make the effort on every trip to meet with and engage in real dialogue with as broad a cross-section of people as your embassy can assemble. It’s a rule that should not only apply for your trips, but for embassy staff more broadly: Letting the bureaucrats lock our diplomats in a bunker due to security concerns is the very last way to honor the memory of slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens.
And keep your eye on the big picture. The road to being a great secretary of state begins with a strategic vision and concrete, realistic plans to achieve it. One of your most fundamental tasks will be to adapt U.S. policy even as the United States "right-sizes" its military and political presence in the Middle East over the next four years. So how can you use diplomacy to cushion any blows to American influence that might result, continue to protect vital American interests and promote core American values, and use the prospect of an American drawdown as leverage over otherwise recalcitrant allies?
This all depends on getting Syria and Egypt right — oh, and also the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Iraq, and Libya, and Tunisia, and Yemen, and… welcome to the Middle East, Mr. Secretary!