Dear Secretary Kerry,
Congratulations on your first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. You start with some real advantages: The president clearly trusts your judgment and will listen to your ideas, you already have extensive relationships with leaders in the region, and you can devote yourself fully to this job without worrying about what comes next. That's important, since obsessing about your "legacy" on day one is the best way to ensure that you won't have one. You know that nobody cares about your frequent-flier miles, and you don't want to be known as Louis Vuitton John. This trip is your first chance -- and perhaps your only chance -- to show the people and leaders of the region what you want to achieve over the next four years.
Everyone you meet on this trip is trying to figure out the priorities of the new administration. You no doubt are looking to build relationships and solicit strategic cooperation from the leaders you meet, but if you try to smooth over those first encounters by avoiding democracy and human rights concerns, don't expect to be able to introduce them later. So set the right tone from the beginning. Your itinerary is a good start, signaling your focus on the two countries that will shape the region's future: Egypt and Syria.
It sounds like you're already on the right track on Syria, with the Rome conference. Increasing direct non-military support for the Syrian opposition is the right way to proceed, as you did with your new pledge of $60 million in non-lethal aid. You should focus broadly on building the Syrian opposition's political institutions and influence on the ground, rather than fixate narrowly on arming them.
Your comments thus far -- such as your remark that the United States would not leave the opposition "dangling in the wind" -- suggest that you recognize the need for more assertive international action to deal with the nigh-incomprehensible levels of devastation in Syria. But they also show that you understand that Bashar al-Assad's fall would be a short-lived triumph if it is followed by state failure, endemic warlordism, and ethnic cleansing -- which is where a strategy based primarily on the uncoordinated arming of rebels is likely to lead. The Saudis may have visions of their "successful" support of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets dancing in their heads; you should remember what happened next. You need to show Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that you've got a plan that will work, and convince the Syrian opposition that you're serious about it. Good luck.
Syria's not all you'll talk about in the Gulf. You're probably going to hear a bit of triumphalism about Gulf leaders' "success" in riding out the Arab Spring and their wisdom in resisting the winds of change. In the UAE especially, you'll probably get an earful about the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood and how foolish the United States has been in Egypt. Don't buy it. It would be foolish to believe that the Arab world has returned to "normal" and that you can safely expect to work quietly with stable authoritarian regimes. True, the Gulf monarchies managed to prevent any of their team from getting tossed from the throne, for now. But there are deep, fundamental processes of change still unfolding which are likely to lead to real turbulence at some point during your tenure.
And don't fall for the popular line that the monarchies have some unique recipe for stability. The Gulf kingdoms, especially Saudi Arabia, have spent heavily on short-term political stability -- but their level of spending may prove unsustainable if the price of oil should drop significantly. Their societies are changing rapidly: A rising generation of wired citizens is placing escalating demands on their rulers, and their expectations of social, economic, and political change thus far remain unmet. This is true beyond the Gulf, of course -- don't be fooled by the narrative of a successful Jordanian election, which didn't do much to address the fundamental underlying problems in the Hashemite Kingdom.
Get out in front of this by pushing the region's royals on the urgency of political reform -- and letting them know from the start that the new administration cares about these issues. The Gulf leaders you meet are not going to want to hear about democracy or human rights, but if you don't bring up these issues on this trip they will be seen as off the table for the foreseeable future.