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In His Shining Debut, Powell Takes a Spin Around the World

Diplomacy: Secretary of State impresses leaders with consulting skills on his first trip abroad in new role.

March 01, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was a brief but telling episode: As Colin L. Powell and Jordanian King Abdullah II emerged from talks in Amman, the new monarch offered to personally chauffeur the new secretary of State to the airport in his limo, a Mercedes S500 with a 12-cylinder engine. Powell made a counterproposal. Could he drive the king--and a car with a 12-cylinder engine?

The king complied, riding in the passenger seat as Powell led the motorcade to the airport in the Jordanian capital. His first public comment after the meeting--and ride? "Great car."

It was classic Powell. It also summed up the secretary's first venture abroad.

Powell certainly made headlines on a trip that set diplomatic speed records for racing--with military precision--through seven stops on three continents in a mere five days, including two transatlantic flights.

He won agreement on the principles of a streamlined sanctions policy against Iraq. He vowed a lasting U.S. commitment to stability in the Persian Gulf a decade after the Gulf War. He launched a dialogue to deal with differences between Washington and Moscow on the controversial issue of national missile defense. And he co-sponsored a NATO plan to shrink a tense buffer zone between Serbia and its separatist province, Kosovo.

But among the leaders he met, America's new top diplomat may best be remembered on this first trip for the smaller things that created a personal foundation for working relationships.

In Syria, after talks on the Mideast's many woes, Powell steered the conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad to new technology. The two men--Powell, a former board member of America Online whose son is about the age of Syria's new leader, and Assad, an aspiring young techie--then mused about what impact the information age could have on Syria and the region.

"It established a basis of understanding about what areas we might be able to cooperate on in the future," a senior State Department official on the trip said later.

'Colin' and 'Igor' Meet in Cairo

In Cairo, Powell asked Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov to call him by his first name. By the end of the day, everyone knew it had become "Colin" and "Igor."

In Israel, he discussed security strategy--one retired general to another--with incoming Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In Kuwait, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who oversaw the Gulf War, attended a private ceremony honoring the more than 600 Kuwaiti prisoners of war still held by Iraq and met some of their families.

And at virtually every stop, part of each meeting included one-on-one sessions with the leaders--no staff invited. In Syria, the entire session with Assad, who took over in July after the death of his legendary father, Hafez Assad, involved just the two men and their interpreters.

"This goes a long way toward establishing the kind of personal rapport that deepens diplomacy and makes negotiations easier when it gets down to the difficult issues," said an Israeli official involved in Powell's trip.

The factor most often mentioned by diplomats and officials in the countries he visited was the way Powell opened each meeting by listening.

"He listened carefully to the points made, irrespective of whether the new administration agrees with them," said Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., Nabil Fahmy. "It reflected a respect and concern for other parties. It was particularly impressive because he is a larger-than-life figure.

"It may not always lead to full agreement, but it certainly prevents misunderstandings."

It's a technique at the heart of his style, Powell aides say.

"He comes with his own ideas, but he listens first to what others say and then presents his ideas in terms of what people say their interests are. Everybody thinks they're hearing from him the things they wanted," said the senior State Department official. "It works pretty well."

At each stop, Powell began his pitch by urging a dialogue on the issues of mutual concern. On some matters, such as disagreements with Russia over national missile defense, that's virtually all that came out of a meeting.

But elsewhere, it marked the beginning of what his counterparts interpreted as a new kind of approach.

"He said he's serious about consulting with countries," said Jordan's ambassador to the U.S., Marwan Muasher. "The United States is not just imposing ideas or plans without serious consultation. That's refreshing."

In Brussels, a frequent comment from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers after Powell spoke was an appreciation that he would consult frequently on issues, according to officials present at the meeting.

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