WASHINGTON — John Kerry opened his diplomatic mission to Syria in 2009 with a decidedly undiplomatic question for President Bashar Assad: Why did so few Arab leaders trust Assad?
One month into President Barack 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 the website WikiLeaks.
As Kerry heads off todtay to nine nations in Europe and the Middle East, his debut trip as secretary of state, his blunt exchange with Assad offers insight on his determination to use whatever it takes — even insults — to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, his personal passion.
Kerry has made it clear he wants to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a long and sporadic process that most recently collapsed occurred 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. He said the window to create an independent Palestinian state and to ensure Israeli security soon "could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous."
Kerry will accompany Obama next month on the president's first visit to Israel since entering the White House. They won't present a U.S. peace plan, aides said, but will gather ideas, serve notice that Obama is again considering the issue, and make it clear that Kerry speaks for him.
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 that could secure his legacy. Obama is chiefly focused on winding down America's wars overseas and preventing other conflicts from spreading.
Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who has dealt frequently with Kerry, admires him but sees daylight between America's new top diplomat and the president.
"Frankly, I'm skeptical that the president has yet made a commitment on the Middle East," said Muasher, research director of the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "And for anything to be accomplished, a presidential commitment will be needed."