WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has escaped sweltering Washington but she won't be getting much of a respite from the heat as she crisscrosses Europe, Asia and the Mideast to deal with some of the world's most inflamed crises.
Clinton embarked Thursday on an eight-country trip that will take her first to France for an international conference on Syria and talks with Palestinian leaders. She then heads to Asia for a meeting of Afghan donor countries in Japan and a regional security gathering in Cambodia. She ends the trip in the Middle East, where she will see Egypt's new president and visit Israel.
It will be the globe-trotting secretary of state's longest overseas journey this year and comes as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. President Bashar Assad's regime shows no sign of easing its brutal 16-month crackdown on the opposition despite international pressure and a plan for political transition proposed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
In Paris, Clinton will join foreign ministers from nations participating in the "Friends of Syria" group that is pushing a resolution to the crisis by imposing sanctions on the Assad regime and attempting to coordinate the fractious Syrian opposition. The group is expected to endorse Annan's transition plan – adopted last week by a smaller set of countries – that calls for the formation of an interim unity government that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and free and fair elections.
However, that plan was roundly criticized because it leaves the composition of the government up to the "mutual consent" of both sides with no criteria for exclusion. It does not explicitly bar Assad and his inner circle from participating
While in Paris, Clinton will also meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss ways of restarting stalled peace talks with Israel. U.S. officials have been shuttling between the two sides for months in an active but low-profile attempt to improve the atmosphere for negotiations that broke down two years ago.
She will return to the Israeli-Palestinian theme, as well as broader Mideast issues, including Iran's nuclear program, on her way home from Asia when she visits Israel on July 16-17. Israel was a last-minute addition to the itinerary after presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced that he would visit the country this summer. President Barack Obama has not been to Israel since being elected and Clinton has not visited in almost two years.
Immediately after France, Clinton, though, will head east to Tokyo for an Afghanistan donors conference on Sunday, where participants will be plotting development strategies in line with the expected withdrawal of international forces in 2014.
From Japan, Clinton will make brief stops in Mongolia and Vietnam before traveling to Laos for only the second-ever visit to the landlocked nation by a secretary of state and the first in 57 years.
She will then attend the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional security forum in Cambodia, where discussions are likely to focus on maritime disputes in the South China Sea between China and its smaller neighbors as well as North Korea's continued refusal to return to nuclear disarmament talks.
From Asia, Clinton will return home by way of the Middle East, stopping in Egypt on July 15 and 16 to meet with newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo and inaugurate the new U.S. consulate in Alexandria. She will be the most senior U.S. official to see Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, who won the race to succeed ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, and is expected to stress the importance of Egypt respecting human rights and its peace agreement with Israel.
Clinton will then wrap up her trip in Israel.