Kerry: 'In America you have a right to be stupid'

Staff reports Updated: February 26, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: February 26, 2013

BERLIN — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, met for the first time Tuesday, spending more than an hour discussing the civil war in Syria and other joint matters.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the two met for an hour and 45 minutes, spending more than half that time on Syria in what she called a "really serious and hardworking session."

Kerry and Lavrov discussed how they could implement the so-called Geneva Agreement, which is designed to get the Syrian government and rebels to plan a transitional government for the time after President Bashar Assad leaves office.

That discussion comes two days before nearly a dozen nations, excluding Russia, meet in Rome Thursday with the Syrian opposition to continue to try and find a way forward on resolving the conflict that has cost nearly 70,000 lives.

Lavrov told Russian newswires that his talks with Kerry were "quite constructive."

"I have a feeling that President Barack Obama's second administration, in the foreign policy field led by John Kerry, will try to play a more constructive role in all those areas," Lavrov said.

On Syria, Lavrov said the two reaffirmed their "intention to do all Russia and the U.S. can do.

"It's not that everything depends on us, but we shall do all we can to create conditions for the soonest start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition."

The Syrian foreign minister was in Moscow on Monday and expressed willingness to meet with opposition leaders.

The Syrian National Coalition is skeptical about outside help from the West and threatened to boycott the Rome meeting until a series of phone calls and meetings between Kerry and his ambassadors and Syrian opposition leaders repaired the schism. The council now says it will attend the meeting, but is hoping for more concrete offers of help, including military assistance, which the United States and others have been unwilling to supply.

Kerry told reporters in London on Monday that when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he asked the Obama administration to consider supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. But now he noted that he is an administration official and has to follow administration policy.

Despite urging from Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama has opposed lethal aid.

Earlier in Berlin, Kerry told young Germans of his adventures as a 12-year-old son of an American diplomat in divided postwar Berlin, and urged them to be true to their ideals and values as Europe struggles to emerge from economic doldrums and deal with the threat of terrorism.

Speaking at a town hall meeting, Kerry spoke a few sentences of passable German to the delight of a crowd in a packed Internet cafe before regaling the audience with tales of his boyhood in Berlin in 1954.

He recalled a clandestine bicycle ride into communist East Berlin. "I saw the difference between east and west. I saw the people wearing darker clothing. There were fewer cars. I didn't feel the energy or the movement."

When he returned home, Kerry said, his father "got very upset with me and said: 'You could have created an international incident. I could have lost my job.' So I lost my passport, and I was grounded and I never made another trip like that."

Today, Kerry said: "I never forgot and now it's vanished. Now, so many other countries have followed with this spirit of giving life to people's individual hopes and aspirations."

Kerry urged Germans to be tolerant of all points of view.

"People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it's the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another," he said. "The reason is, that's freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid. ... And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that."

Kerry also took the opportunity to plug a New England clothing line after one audience member complimented him on his pink tie. A graduate of the noted St. Paul's School in New Hampshire and Yale University, Kerry extolled the sartorial virtues of Vineyard Vines, a Connecticut purveyor of — in its own description — "preppy" clothes that has a pink whale for a logo.

"I don't own any stock in the company," he said to laughter.

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