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Rice doesn’t dawdle on her foreign visits

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2007

PARIS — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent 24 hours in Paris this week. During that time, she participated in 13 meetings, gave two television interviews and held a brief press conference in the freezing cold courtyard of the Elysee Palace.

She was so pressed for time that her meeting with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and current representative of the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators, took place in her car instead of at the site of a Palestinian donors' conference.

Most of Miss Rice's engagements were related to the conference and the peace process, as well as U.S.-France relations. But she also managed to squeeze in a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon.

In her third year as the nation's top diplomat, Miss Rice has carved out a travel pattern rather different from that of most of her predecessors. She has minimized the several-day, multistop journeys that have often shaped the secretary's itinerary in favor of one- or two-stop trips.

She is much more likely to go only to one country with a specific purpose and come straight back to Washington, rather than visit several other countries in the same region.

"Her travel fits police needs," a State Department official said, noting that Miss Rice does not necessarily dislike or deliberately try to avoid long trips. "Her belief is that you travel where you need a job done."

A look at the secretary's travel history this year shows that she started out in January with a weeklong, seven-country swing through the Middle East and Europe.

Over the ensuing months, however, she took single-stop trips to Canada, Norway, Egypt, Russia, Panama, France, Portugal and Israel.

Her two-stop trips included France and Belgium; Turkey and Israel; and Ethiopia and Belgium. While visiting Israel, she usually spends a few hours also meeting with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

After leaving Paris late Tuesday night, Miss Rice flew to Iraq before returning to Washington.

Miss Rice's businesslike approach to diplomatic travel breaks with years of tradition. It had become customary, when the secretary was about to attend an international meeting in a foreign city, for him or her to drop by several other countries in the region.

The State Department's regional bureaus still try to push such itineraries, but they have been less successful in selling them to Miss Rice this year, a department official said.

Her choice of travel destinations also directly reflected her policy priorities, the official said. She has spent most of her time on the road in the Middle East and Europe, given her preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq and Iran.

She did not visit Asia at all this year, having entrusted Christopher Hill, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, with the North Korea nuclear negotiations.

Ethiopia and Panama were the only countries she went to in Africa and in Latin America, respectively. She did accompany President Bush on a five-nation Latin American tour in March.

In June, Miss Rice announced a trip that would take her to France, Egypt, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reporters who travel with her were pleasantly surprised by the diverse itinerary, only to be disappointed a few days later when it was slimmed down to just Paris.

Miss Rice's traveling style has critics among current and former diplomats, who say that many countries interpret her focus on the Middle East as a sign that she cares little about the rest of the world.

"It's important to visit a country without pressing business to attend to — that's how you maintain good relations," one diplomat said.

Madeleine K. Albright, the first female secretary of state who served in the Clinton administration, often took extended trips that did not involve solving a crisis or brokering a deal.

She said in a 2004 interview that a "traveling secretary," no matter what the reason for his or her trips may be, is extremely important for achieving an effective foreign policy, because, in addition to "showing the flag," a secretarial visit is an "action-forcing mechanism."

"One, it creates the necessity for your own government bureaucracy to get its act together as to what the message will be, and then the place you are going to is trying to figure out how to respond," Mrs. Albright said.