Off She Goes

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson, who has covered the State Department for ten years, was also Tel Aviv bureau chief and a producer for The CBS Evening News.

It's wheels up for Europe, Israel and the West Bank and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic dance card is chock full of appointments to keep and problems which need to be resolved.

Rice's first trip as Secretary of State will be the diplomatic equivalent of a tourist's first trip abroad: "If this is Friday, this must be Berlin."

European officials await President George W. Bush's new envoy, knowing in advance differences remain between their position & Washington's on a number of key issues.

On Iraq, the issue that caused the greatest split during Mr. Bush's first term, Ambassador John Bruton, the European Union's senior diplomat in Washington, says "Europeans recognize we are where we are and we have to go forward."

Dr. Rice is not expected to ask for more European troops to help secure Iraq, but she will take note that nations like Germany, which opposed the war, are now lending their troops to training Iraqi security forces (outside of Iraq's borders).

There are also differences in approach on other high profile issues such as Iran's effort to obtain nuclear weapons. The Europeans have taken the lead in negotiations with Iran on proliferation matters and would like to see Washington become more engaged.

Ambassador Bruton says it is "important for Iran to see all relevant parties to be engaged." Terming the Bush administration's stance to date as "distant," Bruton says negotiators will have a hard time getting Tehran's bottom line "if Iran thinks the U.S. is not engaged."

With an important bloc of Europe's political leadership - most notably in France, Germany, Russia and Spain - at odds with the Bush administration on key issues, Secretary Rice will make an attempt to display some positive feelings in advance of the president's own trip to Europe later this month.

In addition to meeting with senior political leaders during her stops in London, Berlin, Warsaw, Ankara, Paris, Rome, Brussels and Luxembourg City, Rice will also try to make Washington's policy arguments during interviews with local journalists and in meetings with academics and other opinion makers in several off- the-record sessions.

Rice will also fly to Israel and travel to the West Bank to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, touching base early in her term to check on recent progress made between the parties to achieve one of the Bush administration's main foreign policy goals for the next four years: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

Ambassador Bruton says he doesn't expect Rice to be carrying any dramatic new initiative on the Middle East, but Aaron Miller, a former member of the State Department's Middle East negotiating team who is now head of Seeds of Peace, says the real question is what private messages Rice brings to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly-elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the ones we won't hear about publicly.

Given Mr. Bush's stated goals, Miller says what's needed now is "to correct the mistakes of the past and create a balance between over-engagement of the Clinton years and disengagement during Bush's first term." According to Miller, Middle East peacemaking is "… not weekend work."

Abbas has his challenges, especially in gaining control of terrorists who want to disrupt any forward momentum in the peace process.

Ed Abington, a former Consul General in Jersualem who now advises the Palestinian Authority, says the Palestinians also want to know "how active the Bush administration is going to be and how committed it is to moving forward." If Mr. Bush's own statements are any guide, Dr. Rice will clearly indicate a new level of engagement when she meets with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

The only publicly scheduled foreign policy address Rice will give will be in Paris near the end of her weeklong trip. Asked about what she'll say to her French audience, in an interview with Reuters and Agence France-Presse, Rice previewed some of her remarks by shunning the use of the term "exit strategy" when asked about Iraq. Instead, she said "I hope that we're all at the point that we want a success strategy in Iraq."

And, in what would be the best of all worlds for the Bush administration, Rice said: "I really believe that everyone understands that it's the future that matters here." In a week's time, we'll have a better idea of just how willing European governments are to let bygones be bygones.

By Charles M. Wolfson

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