The terrible car bombing in Damascus underlines the most immediate priority for John Kerry. The new US Secretary of State arrives in London on Monday at the start of his first foreign trip, one that will take him to nine countries across Europe and the Middle East. Whatever else, it will not be a “getting-to-know-you” affair – Mr Kerry knows most of his counterparts well already. And with little need for introductions, Syria will be top of the agenda.
What to expect, then? With a CV that includes 28 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an unsuccessful presidential run, and discreet service to Barack Obama as a troubleshooter in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan, Mr Kerry brings more direct experience to the job than almost all his predecessors. Secretary of State is the office he has long coveted, and one for which he is well suited.
Amid the speculation over the future of Hillary Clinton, Mr Kerry’s arrival has been low key. Only three weeks into his tenure did he deliver his first major speech, urging the importance of maintaining the US aid programme, despite pressure to cut spending. These days, US foreign policy is ultimately shaped in the White House, and Mr Kerry may well – like Ms Clinton before him – be charged with selling decisions rather than taking them. Nonetheless, his choice of topic gives a clue where his inclinations lie, favouring negotiation and the use of “soft power” over force.
As a decorated Vietnam veteran, Mr Kerry has seen the horrors of war up close. Like Mr Obama, his instinct will be to keep the US out of the Syrian conflagration. During this trip, he will meet his Russian equivalent, Sergei Lavrov, the Syrian opposition, as well as key Arab leaders in Egypt and the Gulf. A few faint hopes have emerged of talks to end the crisis. Failing these, however, the decision for Mr Obama and his new Secretary of State will be whether to arm the rebels – and risk making an already bloody civil war even bloodier still.