Following in the footsteps of many recent Secretaries of State, John Kerry is flying around the Middle East with regular abound making stops this time in Egypt, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and probably Turkey and then perhaps back to Geneva. The difference between this trip and standard trips like this over the years is that Kerry is fence-mending and hand-holding everywhere he goes with little likelihood for positive results or constructive progress for the region emerging from any of the visits. It is almost like Kerry—read Obama—felt the need to get the American flag and voice, seen and heard in the region; regardless of whether there was anything useful emerging from these conversations.
U.S.-Egypt relations have suffered dramatically since the Morsi Government was overthrown by the military; democracy once again replaced by military rule, and the temporary—at least—cut-off in part of U.S. assistance to Egypt. Kerry arrived for some photo-ops and some very early discussions of how the U.S. and Egypt might be able to repair the damaged relationship. While must observers assume it will evolve over time, the Egyptian strong men now in power seem in no rush to kowtow to U.S. pique at their repudiation of the democratic elections of last year. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamists have suffered significantly as a result of the coup—which is not in principle something disliked by the U.S.—the fact is that Egypt’s first democratic elections were wiped out, which deeply troubles the Obama Administration. U.S. policy towards Egypt is still in search of a clear direction, so Kerry sought to at least reassure the new leadership that the U.S. recognizes the good that the regime is accomplishing in maintaining the peace with Israel, improving the patrols in the Sinai, restricting Hamas’ activities, and enhancing the anti-fundamentalist forces in Egypt.
The Saudis are still peeved at the Obama Administration’s failure to attack Syria after Assad use of sarin gas was exposed in August. This perceived weakness demonstrated by the President—which disturbed the Israelis as well—made the Saudis believe–also like the Israelis–that the U.S. will likely be skittish to move against Iran’s nuclear facilities, if and when there be a necessity to do so in the near future. The Saudis also were not enthusiastic to see the U.S. playing ball with the Russians in supporting their initiative to deactivate the Syrian gas caches, some of which the Saudis and Israelis still fear may well end up in the hands of the Iranians or Hezbollah. The Saudis also were not pleased by U.S. reaction to the Egyptian coup, which the Saudis viewed was a constructive attack on the Islamists.
As for his hand-holding trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry no doubt has pushed the sides to meet publically once again briefly, and to reaffirm their commitment to proceed with the negotiations, despite the fact that no one believes at this point that any progress is being achieved. The President also needed Netanyahu to tone down his questioning public rhetoric concerning Iran that is emanating from Jerusalem, and to underscore the White House’s initiative to bring American Jewish leadership to also maintain a less aggressive profile regarding the Iran talks in Geneva.
What may develop should other stops ensue in Kerry’s regional tour is not clear, but they too will only be to demonstrate that the U.S. is still very much engaged and that Kerry himself intends not to leave everything to his underlings. At present the Obama Administration has so much on its plate at home that now more than ever it does not want or need any distractions from the Middle East which could develop over any further misunderstandings. The trip is not a very exciting or positive fly-around Kerry, but he is piling up his frequent flyer miles.