Diplomatic Diary: Powell On Tour

After all the rancor of the run-up to war in Iraq, this might just be the time for the world's major powers to reach out to one another. Yes, the prospect of the world's foreign ministers hugging one another at the United Nations may seem a distant dream. But for now, there are a few olive branches on hand.

In Washington, Colin Powell has been blitzing the international and domestic media since the war began, in an effort to restore some confidence in U.S. diplomacy. And the U.S. Secretary of State began America's re-engagement with the world in earnest today with a trip to Turkey and Belgium. In Brussels, Powell will effectively convening an extraordinary summit of European Union and NATO foreign ministers on Thursday to discuss the war in Iraq and especially its aftermath. Having faced criticism for not traveling enough during the U.N. negotiations, Powell is preparing for the next round at the U.N. with plenty of face-time with European allies.

"It will take a great deal of discussion and negotiations," Powell said en route to Turkey on Tuesday, "but I sense everybody understands that there will no doubt be debates about how much authority the U.N. should have and what the role of coalition forces should be during this period." In fact the very process of negotiating such policies may offer its own way of bridging the divide over Iraq--a second chance to negotiate the kind of agreement that proved so elusive at the U.N. last month.

Powell's personal popularity should help as well. Already, his early efforts at mending fences have received some positive reviews. After one interview with French television last week, Powell took a glowing call from France's Dominique de Villepin, his nemesis at the U.N. De Villepin, according to Powell's aides, went out of his way to be complimentary: "I like what you said," he reportedly told Powell. "We will need to be able to work together on the humanitarian aspects of this conflict, whatever our differences on the decision to go to war."

For their part, U.S. officials--at least at the State Department--are willing to go out of their way to return the compliment. "That's true of us as well," says one senior Powell aide, pointing to de Villepin's speech in London last week when he pledged to work with the Americans on humanitarian efforts in Iraq. (Of course, that was the same event where de Villepin consciously avoided answering a question as to which country he wanted to win the war--a sign of just how much work Powell has ahead of him.)

"It's not really 'let bygones be bygones.' We think there is a residue left and people need to stand up for what is right," says the Powell aide. "We like to be able to count on our allies. There will be some questions in the relationship left for some time to come. But the fact is that we are working together in Afghanistan and in the Ivory Coast, where the French were helping to rescue Americans. You will see people focus on the present of what needs to be done."

That helps explain why the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to resume its oil-for-food program in Iraq last week. That vote followed some bitter behind-the-scenes disputes over what French and Russian officials claimed was an attempt to legitimize the American-British military action in Iraq. In response, U.S. officials pointed out that the high-minded opposition of the French and Russians rapidly deteriorated into a downright grab for cash, as they sought compensation for late payments on previous humanitarian contracts in Iraq.

However, in many ways that was the easy part of international fence-mending. After all, who could oppose feeding Iraqi civilians, whether or not they support the war? The far tougher challenge is to rehabilitate the United Nations itself, and by extension the international consensus it represents. That is why the as-yet-undefined role of the U.N. in rebuilding Iraq is so important. Not because of what it means for the U.N., but what it says about the administration's willingness to work with the rest of the world.

U.S. officials like to say that there must be a U.N. role in Iraq, not U.N. rule. Yet almost nobody is talking about the U.N. ruling Iraq; everyone wants the Iraqis to run Iraq. The debate is whether the U.N. has the main voice in shaping the new Iraqi government, or simply sits out the political debate while it hands out aid through its own agencies.

On this point, the Brits and the French are far closer than the Brits and the Americans. (Although U.S. officials concede there is still no single American position as the administration continues to debate the issue internally.) That is why Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was so anxious to press his case directly with President George W. Bush at Camp David last week. Blair's message was all about reviving the U.N. and the necessity--at least for his own political survival--for America to re-engage with the world.

As for the details of the U.N.'s role in Iraq, the Brits and the Americans agreed to kick the can down the road. "We agreed pretty easily that it was not the right time to negotiate it in the early stages of a conflict," says one senior British official. However, the Brits feel confident that they have successfully beaten back a Pentagon notion of creating a new government in Baghdad that is dominated by Iraqi exiles.

However, even Powell concedes that with some countries it will take far more than a good television interview or a warm face-to-face meeting to repair the diplomatic damage. For some crucial allies in the region, the bar is far higher as the war progresses. The secretary's first stop this week was Ankara, Turkey, where he was offering $1 billion in aid to help the Turkish economy as a gesture of goodwill--in spite of the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow U.S. ground troops to be based there. Powell noted sharply that the aid was not guaranteed. "I will just point this out to them," he explained on his plane. "There is a lingering sense of disappointment ... and we have to make sure we do nothing more to contribute to it in the days and weeks ahead."

That disappointment exists on both sides of the divide on Iraq. It will take all of Powell's considerable personal skills--and a positive outcome on the battlefield--to heal the wounds of the last diplomatic battle.

Diplomatic Diary: Powell On Tour | News