Powell Flies in the Face of Tradition
The Secretary of State Is Least Traveled in 30 Years
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page A01
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell hates to fly -- and it shows.
Powell is on track to become the least traveled secretary of state in more than three decades, since Henry A. Kissinger embodied the concept of the globe-trotting foreign policy guru, according to records maintained by the State Department's historian. Powell's three immediate predecessors, the records show, traveled an average of more than 45 percent more than he has.
In Powell's view, he is bringing the job of secretary of state back to its core purpose of managing foreign policy from Washington. He travels when necessary, as briefly as possible, and reaches out to foreign leaders by telephone and to foreign audiences with repeated television interviews. "His first duty is to advise the president on his foreign policy and to manage the department to execute the foreign policy," State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said. "That's the job. It's mostly done in Washington."
Powell speed-dials around the globe, following time zones as his counterparts wake up. By the State Department's count, he made more than 1,500 calls to foreign officials in the two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition to granting interviews to media overseas, he meets regularly with foreign officials here -- in both cases, according to Boucher, more than any other secretary in recent memory.
Meanwhile, Powell has sharply cut back on travel, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. Including his recent trip to Sudan and Indonesia, Powell traveled 180 days in his first 42 months as secretary. Madeleine K. Albright, Warren M. Christopher and James A. Baker III averaged 46 percent more days at similar points in their tenures.
Indeed, Powell's schedule puts him just slightly ahead of William P. Rogers, secretary of state from 1969 to 1973, who was largely overshadowed by Kissinger, then the national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon. Powell is significantly behind George P. Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, and would need to travel 45 more days in the next six months to catch up with Shultz's 225 days of travel over four years.
Some leading foreign policy specialists -- and even some State Department officials -- have wondered whether Powell's travel schedule has in some ways contributed to the United States' falling image abroad. They argue that behind-the-scenes actions, such as telephone calls, carry much less impact overseas in an era when public diplomacy is increasingly important in advancing foreign policy goals.
"Telephoning is necessary but not sufficient," said former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, a leading prospect for secretary of state in a John F. Kerry administration. "In the modern age, like it or not, secretaries have to travel. There is no alternative."
Powell, who lived and traveled overseas frequently during his lengthy military career, came into his current job without wanderlust. In his 1995 autobiography, "My American Journey," he wrote that "having seen much of the world and having lived on planes for years, I am no longer much interested in travel."
Shortly before he took office, Powell received a letter from the dean of the diplomatic corps, George F. Kennan, a key aide to Powell's hero, George C. Marshall. Marshall was a Nobel peace laureate and a secretary of state to President Harry S. Truman. In the letter, which Boucher provided, Kennan argued that Powell's predecessors had "seriously misused and distorted" the office of secretary of state through their travel.
Kennan said much more of the diplomatic heavy lifting should be done by lower-level officials, especially ambassadors, while the secretary remains in Washington. "These absences [should] be held to a minimum and not indulged in when suitable alternatives are available," Kennan wrote. "The absence of the secretary of state for prolonged periods deprived the president, so long as it endured, of what should have been the latter's widest, most qualified and most responsible source of advice on foreign policy problems."
Boucher said Kennan's letter struck a chord with Powell, who was already thinking along the same lines. Powell, according to aides, told the assistant secretaries of state that they were his battalion commanders and that they would hit the road, but that he would be available if needed.
Thus, Powell relied on the ambassador in Beijing to help resolve a dispute with China over a collision between a Chinese fighter and a U.S. surveillance plane. He tasked then-Assistant Secretary Walter H. Kansteiner III to hopscotch across Africa to win three key votes needed on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council. Kansteiner got the votes, even though he was shadowed by the French foreign minister.
Detractors, such as James B. Steinberg of the Brookings Institution, point to the Turkish parliament's narrow rejection of a U.S. request that troops be allowed to enter Iraq through Turkey as an example in which personal, on-the-ground diplomacy by Powell might have made a difference. Foreign policy experts also say Powell has spent relatively little time in the Middle East since a difficult trip in April 2002, even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq have been central issues for this administration.
Kissinger, whose "shuttle diplomacy" in the Middle East defined his tenure, still holds the travel record: 313 days in his 39 months as secretary of state. Powell also has traveled far less than John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, and barely exceeds the travel pace of Dean Rusk, secretary of state for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Powell also has significantly shorter trips than any predecessor -- an average of 3.3 days. He rushes through meetings in conference rooms and foreign ministries and spends virtually no time sightseeing. In 3 1/2 years, his only nonbusiness moments have been 15 minutes in a Nepalese temple in 2002 and a couple of hours at the ancient ruins of Petra during a three-day trip to Jordan in 2003. In capitals abroad, it has become his custom to apologize for the brevity of his visit and express the hope he can stay longer next time.
In fact, Powell has progressively cut the average length of his trips, from 4.6 days in 2001 to 2.9 days this year. Kissinger's trips lasted an average of 8.7 days, while most other recent secretaries averaged about five days.
Typical of his pace on the road, Powell spent less than 24 hours in Sudan and less than 36 hours in Jakarta, Indonesia, and flew overnight two of his four nights outside the United States.
Strikingly, President Bush has spent more time overseas than any other first-term president except his father. Including last month's trip to Ireland and Turkey, Bush spent 64 days traveling in foreign countries, compared with 78 days for his father and 56 days for Bill Clinton, who ranked third, according to State Department records.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack said that Bush has found it invaluable to meet foreign leaders face to face overseas, but that he found no fault with Powell's travel schedule. "What the president is more concerned with is effectiveness, and Secretary Powell is a very effective secretary of state," McCormack said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company