Despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's journey to Asia, he is taking a little heat because he's not traveling as much as his recent predecessors. Stung by the criticism, especially from the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman, Powell spoke in his own defense when a reporter raised the issue.
"Just for the record," Powell said, "I took 16 trips last year, 41 countries, and I also received a large number of visitors here, so I think I'm on the road a bit." His spokesman, Richard Boucher, earlier had reminded reporters that in New York recently, Powell had taken the time to meet privately with 13 foreign ministers.
Friedman wrote this week that the thing which impressed him most about the run-up to the Gulf War was going with then Secretary of State James A. Baker III on seven trips abroad "to watch him build—face-to-face—the coalition & public support for that war, before a shot was fired."
"Going to someone else's country is a sign you respect his opinion. This Bush team has done no such hands-on spade work," Friedman writes. "Its members think diplomacy is a phone call."
It's a good one-liner but face-to-face travel may not be the only way to conduct diplomacy. Frankly, the jury is still out on Powell's diplomatic tactics.
The simple fact is Colin Powell doesn't like to do any more traveling than necessary. He knows full well the importance of seeing people face-to-face but he also trusts the more constant use of the telephone. Powell's rejoinder to Friedman is "through the power of modern technology, the use of e-mail and telephones, that is another way to be in touch with the world without only living in an airplane to do so."
Bill Smullen, an aide to Powell for 13 years at the Pentagon, in the private sector and at the State Department, and now a professor and senior national security fellow at Syracuse University, says of Powell: "he's not a shopper, he's not a sightseer, he's a doer. Get there, get it done and get back" is the way Powell operates, says Smullen.
Smullen says he's fond of calling his former boss "the E.F.Hutton of our government. When Colin Powell speaks, people listen."
Powell himself plays it straight. "I ultimately have to make the judgment of where my time should be spent. I am principal foreign policy advisor to the president and so have to spend a goodly part of my time with the president, but I also have responsibilities to travel, and I do that."
One of Powell's senior aides says the secretary has personal relationships with people which are both direct and electronic. "He worked the first U N resolution (1441) this way and he'll work this resolution (expected to be introduced next week) the same way."
Powell's style is a change of pace. His most recent predecessors, Baker, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright all traveled almost constantly. A year's travel was measured in hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of miles logged on the secretary's air force jet.
Powell relies on his ambassadors more than his predecessors, senior aides say, leaving them in many cases to do a lot of the negotiating. That's true currently with Robert Pearson in Turkey and John Negroponte at the United Nations. It was also true with former ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, who was Powell's point man after a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. electronic spy plane, forcing it to land in China.
Officials often tell reporters "there is no cookie-cutter approach" to America's diplomacy and that can surely be extended to include the management styles—and travel habits—of different secretaries of state. If a lot of travel worked for Baker, Christopher and Albright, fine. If it doesn't for Powell, also fine.
If the Bush administration's overall foreign policy, and more precisely its diplomatic effort to gain backing for a war against Saddam Hussein, is ultimately judged a failure, there will be plenty of places to lay blame and not enough face-to-face meetings with French officials in Paris may be one of them.
Conversely, if Powell manages to get the Security Council to adopt a second resolution, one should not put too much emphasis on whether he did it by twisting arms in person or raising his voice in a trans-Atlantic phone conversation.
Ultimately, it will be President Bush's policies and tactics which will be subjected to no end of scrutiny, and rightly so. We'll see then how important a role Powell's frequent-flyer account played in the outcome.