Syria trip tests Powell's vision for 'let's talk' diplomacy

Talks come as the State Department faces a rift with Pentagon over tone of foreign policy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has the American public behind his inclusive, let's-discuss-our-differences approach to the world as he visits Syria this weekend. But the Pentagon and supporters of more aggressive diplomacy are nipping at his heels.

A week after Mr. Powell sent his assistant for East Asian and Pacific affairs to Beijing for controversial talks with North Korea, the secretary himself is under fire for making the trip to Damascus, which the State Department just this week kept on its annual list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Most criticism of Powell's approach to diplomacy emanates from the Pentagon - or from surrogates for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his more muscular, black-and-white vision of the world. The jousting over the tone, direction, and emphasis of American diplomacy was already frequent post-9/11, but it has intensified in the wake of the quick US military victory in Iraq.

"Colin Powell has staked out the broader, more positive, and indeed less threatening approach to the rest of the world," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. "For others who favor a more limited, blunt, and more ideological approach to foreign policy, especially following a successful military campaign, Colin Powell is the big target."

Inside clashes over foreign policy are not unique to George W. Bush's administration, but some experts assert - and some diplomats warn - that the military is playing an increasingly influential role.

As evidence, they point to the Bush administration's national security strategy, unveiled last September, which highlights a doctrine of preemptive military action - first employed in the Iraq war - and the principle that no power is permitted to challenge American military superiority.

There are many key policy areas that will feel the impact of the foreign- policy duel, experts say, including Iraqi reconstruction, the Israeli-Pale- stinian conflict, North Korea, and relations with China and the United Nations.

For example, the US this week released its "road map" for settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that Powell, along with other international powers, has been pushing. But foreign-policy hard-liners inspired by Secretary Rumsfeld are skeptical of the new plan, since it presses both Israel and the Palestinians to make tough concessions.

Rumsfeld, suspicious of Powell's willingness to talk to America's adversaries, wanted to send Undersecretary of State John Bolton - seen as one of his hard-liners - to last week's Beijing talks. Powell rebuffed the move.

And then Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whom Rumsfeld appointed to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, gave a heavily publicized speech in which he launched a broadside against Powell and the nation's diplomatic apparatus, calling Powell's trip to Syria "ludicrous" and the State Department a "broken instrument."

But Powell's approach appears to resonate with a wide majority of Americans, even after the war.

In a national survey taken after the quick military victory in Iraq, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found Americans broadly sticking to their traditional preference for multilateral engagement with the world.

"The war can do no wrong right now with the American public ... so we wondered if there was momentum towards a different kind of US role in the world, if [Americans] are more comfortable in a more hegemonic role in the world, and basically we found the answer to that is 'no,' " says Steven Kull, PIPA director.

In the poll, a wide majority of Americans said the US plays the role of global cop more than it should, that even after toppling Saddam Hussein without UN support, the US should not feel freer to wage war without UN authorization. And nearly 90 percent said consulting the UN about Iraq - which Powell firmly pushed - was "the right thing to do."

More than 70 percent said differences with Syria should be addressed with "diplomacy and dialogue" - a resounding endorse- ment of Powell's approach.

In the end, what counts is how President Bush responds to the foreign-policy dueling.

"The question is whether he is able to put the creative tension to work to his and the country's benefit, or whether it becomes debilitating for the conduct of US foreign policy," says Mr. Inderfurth, professor of international relations at George Washington University. "Whose vision wins out on dealing with North Korea, reconstruction in Iraq, the Middle East - that's still up in the air."

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