KHARTOUM, Sudan -- Flying to the capital of Sudan on Friday evening in a noisy propeller plane, Robert B. Zoellick pulled out a white legal pad and began to make notes in his distinctive tiny script.
Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, had spent almost the entire week focused on resolving the myriad and intractable conflicts of Africa's largest country. He traveled to a conference in Oslo to raise money to implement a peace accord for one conflict, met government leaders in Khartoum, visited a former rebel stronghold in the south and toured a refugee camp in the Darfur region in the west.
A full page of notes soon emerged as he puzzled about what would come next. How should he monitor the requests he made to the government? What questions did he have that needed to be answered? What should he tell Congress? During the trip, he had learned King Abdullah of Jordan had good relations with Khartoum. He made a note to speak to the king when he goes to an economic forum in Jordan next month.
There are different kinds of diplomats. There are strategists and grand thinkers, there are smooth speakers and spinmeisters, and there are nuts-and-bolts operators. Zoellick, the former U.S. trade representative, has a deep background in both economics and politics, but four years of cutting trade deals in President Bush's first term appears to have molded him into a pragmatic diplomatic troubleshooter.
Zoellick, in fact, is fond of quoting his onetime European Union counterpart, Pascal Lamy, that economic officials are the "blue-collar workers" of diplomacy -- that while other people are laying out the broad strategy of the road, they are the ones actually laying the road.
Zoellick was a surprise choice as Condoleezza Rice's deputy. He was already a Cabinet member, and many in official Washington assumed he was a top candidate to become World Bank president. Moving back to State -- where he had served in the administration of Bush's father -- in a sub-Cabinet role was considered an unusual career move.
But as Rice's State Department begins to take shape, Zoellick has emerged as a key player, with unusually broad assignments that cut across department lines, State Department officials say. Zoellick, in his economic role in the first term, had little direct connection to the wrenching debates about invading Iraq and Afghanistan -- and he appears to relish playing the skunk in the garden party as officials review policies for the second term.
Zoellick, for instance, is in charge of a large-scale review of policy in Iraq, including coaxing Europeans and the Japanese to help in the reconstruction. He also is coordinating the administration's efforts to advance democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, making sure various programs in various government agencies mesh well with the administration's policy, and creating "action plans" for each nation.
Zoellick will lead a new series of talks with China on a range of political and economic issues, which the administration hopes will prod the emerging power to adjust its behavior. He also has been handed the task of managing the reconstruction of areas damaged by the Indian Ocean tsunami -- and to see whether the U.S. role in that reconstruction can be leveraged into a stronger political and economic relationship with Southeast Asian nations, especially Indonesia.
Zoellick, a protege of former secretary of state James A. Baker III, often cites Baker's maxim that he can play only with the cards he's been dealt. There are fewer worse hands in international diplomacy than Sudan. But Sudan also has captured the attention of the Christian right, a key part of Bush's political base, so it is a mark of Zoellick's importance that he has been handed this diplomatic assignment, officials said.
The State Department took the unusual step of inviting a small group of reporters to travel with Zoellick last week as he tackled the Sudan issue and took a side trip to Iraq. Generally, deputy secretaries of state never travel with reporters, but Zoellick brought along eight, including a television crew from ABC News.
Zoellick devoted an unusual amount of time to working with the media representatives so they would understand his goals and objectives. He held nearly six hours of media briefings over five days, almost all on the record.
He rarely spoke in the canned rhetoric of State Department press guidance -- such as saying that talks were "frank and productive" -- but instead provided detailed descriptions of his interactions with foreign officials. The goal, he told reporters, was "transparency" -- in other words, if reporters understood what happened, they could write about the events accurately without misinterpretation.
During his trip to Fallujah, Iraq -- where security conditions prevented Zoellick from leaving an armored Humvee during a tour of the downtown -- reporters remained in the room as he met with local Iraqi officials. Under Zoellick's questioning about possible problems they faced, a torrent of complaints began to emerge from the Iraqis, some contradicting the rosy information issued by State in Washington. Zoellick later told reporters that when he noticed they were in the room, he began to try to think of what questions they would ask if they had been permitted to speak.
The articles on the Fallujah excursion focused on the complaints -- and the unusually tight security in a city frequently cited as a showpiece of the administration's Iraq effort. But Zoellick told aides he was pleased with the coverage because it was useful to remind Americans that Iraq is still a difficult challenge.