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Foreign Policy In Transition

You knew the changeover was real when the photos of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were taken down in the department's Hall of Diplomacy. "You don't think the new boss wants to see these on his first day in office," said the staffer as she pulled down all references to Albright in the exhibition area.

That was an hour before "the new boss," Secretary of State Colin Powell, arrived to much applause from hundreds of foreign and civil service workers gathered in the main lobby of the State Department.

Powell, disarmingly folksy, apologized for being a bit tardy: "I don't like to keep the troops waiting," said the retired four-star army general to much laughter.

Albright, in her farewell three days before, had also been given a warm welcome by employees gathered in the same place. The difference between the two ceremonies was that many of those who showed up last week were political appointees who owed their jobs to Albright and the Clinton administration.

Albright graciously thanked everyone "for what we have been able to do together" and recounted some of the highlights of her four years in office, such as "watching the Yugoslav people toss Milosovic out on his ear."

But Madeleine Albright was never a favorite of the foreign service. She used special envoys to head up such major initiatives as the Middle East peace process, and Balkans and North Korea policy, all the while bypassing the bureaucracy.

Powell, much to the delight of those who practice diplomacy as a career, said "You are the experts. You know what's going on... and I want to hear from you as directly as I can with a minimum number of layers in between." Whether these were words he knew his audience wanted to hear and whether he will actually put them into practice is something we will know only in time.

The new secretary was also smart enough to spell out a few other truths. Powell said he wanted to "let you know that there will be consistency, there will be some coherence in our foreign policy, but also let you know that there will be changes coming; this is what elections are all about." Powell wasn't kidding.

The changes started later that day — the first full working day of the new administration — when President Bush signaled from the White House a change in abortion policy, a hot button issue in domestic politics which also has ramifications for the State Department.

During the Clinton years, millions of dollars in federal funds (in U.S. aid) went to international family planning organizations which counseled women, mostly in underdeveloped countries, on family planning matters including abortion. President Bush, favoring the view held by many Congressional Republicans, said he was going to change current policy and deny funds to any organization which included abortion counseling in its family planning advice.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the State Departmenis still going to provide money for family planning services, just not to those organizations overseas which promote or provide abortion services as an option.

There is also change in the approach to the Middle East peace process. President Bush clearly has no interest in becoming as involved in detailed negotiations as was President Clinton.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators entered their latest round of talks with no U.S. advisers on the scene. The talks, in Taba, Egypt, lasted only a few days and have been suspended because of ongoing violence. There were American officials monitoring the talks in Eilat, Israel, near Taba, but they were from the U.S. embassy and consulate in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, not the usual higher level diplomats from Washington.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's point man since 1993, has submitted his resignation and will depart at the end of the month and the office of Special Middle East Coordinator will be closed down.

Spokesman Boucher says the U.S. attaches the same priority to peace in the Middle East, but "how exactly this administration will organize and implement its Middle East policy is something we'll announce at the appropriate time."

It is only the beginning. Before his first week is finished Secretary Powell will see the Canadian and Japanese foreign ministers in Washington. Mr. Bush will travel abroad first to Mexico — not so surprising for a former governor of Texas. Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo and London will have to await their turn.

By Charles Wolfson
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