As Secretary Of State, Kerry Visits Middle East

This weekend, newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry makes his first official visits to Middle Eastern countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks to Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf about Kerry's agenda. Rothkopf says Secretary Kerry has less power to shape U.S. policy overseas than many think.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

John Kerry is in the midst of his first trip as the new secretary of State. He's already traveled to Europe and Turkey. Today, he arrived in Egypt. And in the coming days, he'll visit the Middle East.

The region has already figured prominently in Secretary Kerry's trip. Earlier this week, he promised $60 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels. David Rothkopf is the CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy magazine. He joins us to discuss Kerry's goals in the Middle East. Welcome.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Hi. How are you?

HEADLEE: Let's start with the $60 million for Syrian rebels. The nonlethal aid he's talking about is training and medical aid. Does this signal a huge change of policy for the Obama administration?

ROTHKOPF: Not a huge change. It's an important change because we've been primarily on the sidelines, at least in terms of our visible stance. But it certainly says that Kerry has some clout. It sends a message, you know, he said, I'm not just going to be in a rhetorical mission here. I'm going to change policy, and he did. And I think that may carry some hope for people in the region who would like to see the United States and other Western powers get more actively involved in Syria.

HEADLEE: Secretary Kerry is visiting Cairo before he begins a sweep of the Middle East. He'll go to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. What do you think about the administration's goals for Egypt? Do you see these changing at all, even subtly?

ROTHKOPF: Well, I think the administration's main goal for Egypt is that it not blow up and become a huge mess. They'd like to go there. They'd like to maintain a dialogue with the government there. They'd like to see that government so respect for human rights and democracy. And they'd like that government not to be unconstructive in other affairs in the region.

HEADLEE: You know, John Kerry seemed to have a very strong desire to be secretary of State. What kind of changes do you think he's hoping to bring about in foreign policy?

ROTHKOPF: You know, a lot of articles when you get into secretary of State are, how is he going to set the course for America? What is the new foreign policy going to be? And the reality is that U.S. foreign policy is, first and foremost, set by the global context, by events outside of our controls, other actors. And the president's in charge. He sets the policy. And in this administration, the White House is even more influential than it has been in the past.

So the secretary of State can play an important role as a key actor on behalf of the president, but he is not the chef that's putting together the recipe. He's not responsible for what's on the menu.

HEADLEE: He or she, right, because he's stepping into Hillary Clinton's shoes.

ROTHKOPF: Exactly. In fact, if you, you know, recently, this has been a job occupied by some very accomplished and successful women - Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright, all of them. So, yes, it's a chance for a man in the job to see if he can live up to the standards set by the women who've done it so well recently.

HEADLEE: I love to hear you say that, David. That's David Rothkopf, CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy magazine. David, thanks so much.

Thank you.

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