Clearly on the mend following prostate cancer surgery last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell has started the new year with a series of diplomatic and media appearances, laying out an ambitious agenda for diplomacy in this, the fourth year of the presidency of George W. Bush.
At the top of the year's to do list are four front-burner issues: moving to transfer political sovereignty to the people of Iraq; strengthening Afghanistan's budding democratic government; coaxing North Korea back to the negotiating table with our Asian allies; and, somehow, getting the Israelis and Palestinians back on a diplomatic track.
Not far behind are keeping pressure on Iran and Libya to continue their recent steps in a positive - some would say less confrontational - direction, and monitoring new signs of improvement between Pakistan and India.
Powell's list is longer still, but then he has a bushel full of foreign ministers to worry about if he fails to include a country, a region or a multilateral organization like the U.N. or NATO or the EU at the top of his list of "important" diplomatic relationships. In truth, not everyone can get as much time and attention from America's chief diplomat as they'd like.
As with no other issue, the year's success or failure will be marked by what happens in Iraq. If all of Iraq's many tribal, ethnic and religious factions are able to follow the outlines of last November's agreement, then there will be a transitional political move from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to an Iraqi-led government, thereby restoring sovereignty to the hands of Iraqis. Powell is counting on that happening.
But if dissident forces continue their deadly attacks on American soldiers in Iraq, any diplomatic progress will be blunted. At the same time, Iraq's Kurdish population will have to be satisfied that their political and territorial demands be met. Ditto for Shi'a Muslims who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.
Meanwhile, a way has to be found to somehow also satisfy the Sunnis, who've lost the political control they held for thirty years under Saddam Hussein. Powell's pinning his hopes on Iraqis seeing progress through massive U.S.-led rebuilding projects and the political transition to self-rule in the November 15th plan.
Powell told reporters at his news conference when the Iraqi people "…see that plan really does give them a timeline when they will have their sovereignty back, and it will be a happy day for them and a happy day for us."
Afghanistan shows some positive indicators such as the just completed Loya Jurga, or Grand Council, which successfully drafted a new constitution. But as long as Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the former head of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, are still at large, diplomacy will take a back seat to the pentagon's effort to break the back of continued Taliban resistance.
As the Bush administration looks to another round of talks with North Korea, brokered and hosted by China, Powell said he saw as a "positive" move by Pyongyang their statement they'd be willing to consider ending all their nuclear programs. But one really never knows with the North Koreans, another of the countries (along with Iraq and Iran) designated the "axis-of-evil" by Mr. Bush.
The new year also brings renewed effort by the administration to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations, particularly an attempt to put pressure on the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Queria, also know as Abu Al'aa. Ambassador Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East, is being dispatched to Cairo with a specific goal.
Powell said "I hope he can build a little momentum to get a little pressure from the Egyptians and others to place on the Palestinian Authority. They have to get going and they have to wrest authority away from Arafat that will allow the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority to start taking action with respect to terror and violence."
As these and many other problem - large and small - present themselves for Secretary Powell's attention in the coming months, they will all be dealt with by the Bush administration with the usual foreign policy considerations in mind. But more than that, as Powell himself noted to reporters, these and other foreign policy matters will be managed in an election year.
By Charles M. Wolfson