Diplomacy Defines Rice's Final Months

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the Middle East yet again last weekend, shuttling between the Israelis and the Palestinians to promote a peace initiative. Eight years ago, at the end of another two-term administration, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was preparing to launch a Middle East peace push. Twenty years ago, when the Reagan administration was winding down, George P. Shultz was also banging on the doors of Israelis and Arabs with his own peace plan.

But in the final months of the Bush presidency, Rice isn't pursuing only Middle East peace. There is a North Korean nuclear deal to complete. There is a missile defense pact with Russia to negotiate. There is a civil nuclear deal with India to save. And, of course, there are wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With so much unfinished business and so little time, Rice is constantly in the air, crisscrossing the globe. By the end of her current trip, she will have traveled part or all of the week for 10 straight weeks -- a total of 50 days so far this year. By contrast, Albright and Shultz had traveled half as many days at this point in their final year as secretary of state.

Rice already is on track to be the most traveled secretary of state in history, according to calculations based on records kept by the State Department historian. Thus far, she has made 68 foreign trips, spending about 300 days overseas in her first 38 months, putting her close to shattering Henry Kissinger's three-decade-old record. She doesn't earn frequent-flier miles for traveling on government aircraft -- her primary jet is a military version of a Boeing 757 jet with a private office and bed -- but if she did, she would have accumulated about 800,000 miles.

Rice's flurry of travel in her final months comes as many of her aides appear fatigued and skeptics suggest there is little she can accomplish for an administration with low public approval ratings at home or abroad.

"She recognizes that the action is overseas, not Washington," said Ivo H. Daalder, a Brookings Institution scholar and an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "The action in Washington is the election."

Rice "is to be congratulated that she is trying to solve as many of these problems as possible," Daalder said. But he said he didn't "understand why anyone would make a deal with this administration," with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin, who will step down as Russia's president on May 7. "It doesn't strike me they have a lot of leverage."

The centerpiece of Rice's diplomatic push is making progress on a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, building on the conference in Annapolis that she organized last year. But the effort has stalled on several fronts, despite Rice's repeated trips to the region. While North Korea has made great strides in disabling its nuclear reactor, that agreement has also become mired amid finger-pointing on both sides. Rice's efforts to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear program have also lost steam, while the civilian nuclear deal with India is teetering.

After the Middle East trip, Rice will join President Bush at a NATO summit in Romania and then a meeting with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Moscow and Washington will try to seek a solution after months of acrimony over the administration's plan to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

"The mistakes of the first term were simply too many and too consequential for any second-term secretary of state to overcome," said Karl Inderfurth, director of the program in international affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School, who teaches a course on secretaries of state. "She has been playing catch-up for the past three years, and she does not have much time to reap many benefits at all. If you were handicapping her chances of achieving anything, one would have to say the odds are very long at this point."

Nevertheless, Rice has significantly stepped up the pace of travel this year, spending more days overseas than at the same point in each of her first three years as secretary of state.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice's recent burst of travel relates to the "rhythm of diplomacy," including the need to also accompany the president on his trips. "It is time to see if we can harvest some results from the groundwork we have laid over the years," he said. He described Rice as "heads-up and sprinting to the finish" but added: "She has a healthy appreciation of what we can accomplish and what we need to turn over to the next administration."

On her trips, Rice seems to gain strength and endurance the longer she is on the road, in contrast to the exhaustion of aides and reporters accompanying her. On the return flight at the end of her earlier trip to the Middle East this month, Rice came to the back of the plane and chatted at length with reporters about various issues and hot spots until she was pulled away to place a phone call to an Arab leader.

Danielle Pletka, a vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, was criticized for being the least-traveled secretary of state in three decades and that some argued "that his failure to travel led to difficulties for the United States." But, she said, "the appropriate response is not pointless travel. I don't think the amount she has traveled has borne commensurate results."

Pletka has low expectations for Rice's ability to achieve success with the Israelis and Palestinians. "Everyone pushes a Middle East initiative," she said. "It is the last refuge of legacy-seeking secretaries of state, no matter the president or the party."

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