Powell Asia Trip Raises Questions

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CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

It's not so easy to keep up with the presidential candidates as they flit from one battleground state to another in the closing days of what has become a knockdown, drag-out campaign. If you are looking for someone whose travel schedule is a bit easier to follow, try Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The State Department has announced Powell's upcoming trip to Asian capitals – Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul – which will be a quick diplomatic trip to the three most important countries for U.S. national interests in the region. Powell will be gone for only four days, arriving in Japan this weekend. Three stops, four days, trans-Pacific travel and jet lag included. Like virtually all Powell trips, this one features no frills, no side trips, just the meat and potatoes work of international diplomats: meetings with foreign ministers and other senior officials, and some local media or other public appearances to publicize Bush administration's policies.

Why, a reporter asked at one of the department's daily briefings earlier this week, would Powell bother going to these capitals on the eve of a close presidential election? With even a moderate possibility of a change in administrations in Washington, what could you expect from the host governments? Wouldn't these leaders prefer to wait and see who comes out on top when Americans vote before making policy decisions?

The perfectly fair and reasonable question received a perfectly correct – and bureaucratic – answer.

Ambassador Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said, "first of all, U.S. foreign policy doesn't stop for an election," adding, "The world doesn't stop for American elections."

Well, the world's hot spots may not exactly stop but decision-making in world capitals is often affected by upcoming elections and important matters clearly are impacted by events on the political calendar. One analyst familiar with the region called the idea of a trip at this time, "a bit of a headscratcher."

Timing aside, Powell's trip is going ahead because he hasn't been to the region for more than a year, Boucher said. Ordinarily, the secretary of state might add these stops to the trip he takes for the November meeting of Asian and Pacific Rim countries on economic issues, but this year that meeting is in Chile. Since President George W. Bush has instructed Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to stay out of the political fray, Powell can make the quick trip to Asia and tend to some business.

It turns out there's plenty to talk about, even if no big decisions will be made. The Chinese have taken the lead mediating multilateral talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but the so-called six-party talks are stalled because the North Koreans failed to show up for planned meetings in late September. Speculation has it the North Koreans are waiting to see whether the Bush team wins or loses, although no one really knows Pyongyang's true intentions.

Powell will also extend his personal thanks to leaders in South Korea and Japan for sending troops to stand alongside the American military in Iraq and for help in reconstruction efforts. The Bush administration is also making plans to reposition some U.S. troops which have been based in South Korea and Powell will provide personal reassurance in Seoul to nervous Korean leaders, even though the formal negotiations have already been worked out by the Pentagon.

In Beijing, Powell will of course talk about the six-party talks and he'll raise issues related to Taiwan and to China's poor record on human rights. The secretary of state will be under some pressure to sign on to an early reconvening of the North Korea talks, something which could be harmful, say some analysts, because it risks sending North Korea signals which may turn out to be false, depending on the outcome of the election. Even if Mr. Bush wins another term, one theory goes, he may want another team to lead the U.S. negotiations on North Korea and all this will take some months to work out. If Sen. Kerry wins clearly there will be another team for the other five delegations to become familiar with.

All of these issues have their place in the pecking order of what's important. It just doesn't seem that making such a quick trip and spending so little time in each country will do anything to make much progress on any of them. There is one possible reason for making such a trip, however, that no one wants to talk about, publicly at least. If widely held assumptions that Colin Powell will not serve another term as secretary of state are true, even if there' a Bush victory in November, now may well be his last chance to go to these allies in person and say his farewells while he is still America's top diplomat. Now if that's what's really behind this trip at this time, well, that does make some sense.