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Kerry shows clear divergence from Obama on foreign affairs

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:06 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
US Secretary of State John Kerry looks on as Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to the press prior to talks at the State Deprtment in Washington on February 22, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMMNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — John Kerry opened his diplomatic mission to Syria in 2009 with a decidedly undiplomatic question for President Bashar Assad: Why do so few Arab leaders trust the Syrian leader?

One month into President Obama's first term, the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was in Damascus to explore the possibility of Syrian-Israeli peace talks. But minutes into their meeting, Kerry pressed the Syrian autocrat to explain why other Middle Eastern rulers said Assad always “says one thing and does another ... or he says he will do something, then doesn't do it?”

Assad, clearly startled by the question, demanded examples.

“I need to know this,” he said, according to a State Department memo later disclosed by Wiki-Leaks.

Kerry has made it clear he wants to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a long and sporadic process that most recently collapsed during Obama's first term. He is well-aware that failed attempts tarnished the reputations of elder statesmen and presidents for decades, including Obama.

He is not deterred.

“We need to try to find a way forward,” Kerry said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month.

Yet Kerry and Obama have sharply different attitudes and approaches to foreign crises. The differences raise questions, if not doubts, about how far Kerry can go to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough.

Kerry is driven by a desire for a diplomatic success in the Middle East. Obama is chiefly focused on winding down America's wars overseas and preventing other conflicts from spreading.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, interprets Obama's high-profile trip and other White House signals as “a cautionary approval” for Kerry to try again on restarting talks.

Obama is “saying let's be careful, so if there is no opportunity here we won't be too exposed,” said Kurtzer, now at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Prince-ton University.

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