Igor Ivanov wasn't happy. Or, at the least, he was doing a good job of pretending to be displeased.
"You know, this is all wrong. You've got it all fouled up," he snapped.
On the other end of the transatlantic phone line, Colin Powell remained adamant. Fifty-two Russian diplomats were going to be expelled from the US under suspicion of spying. Mr. Powell had been secretary of State only a few weeks, but already he was facing his first diplomatic crisis.
"This is not a good start to the relationship," said Foreign Minister Ivanov, as recalled by Powell, his American counterpart. "You know what we will do, right?"
After years of dealing with world problems, Powell had a realistic idea about what came next. "Yes, you're going to throw out 52 Americans," he said.
"Right," said Mr. Ivanov.
"And then it's over?" asked Powell.
"And then it's over, right," said Ivanov.
Nearly four years after the Bush administration first took office, it is easy to forget that it has had to deal with a wide range of world problems and relationships - not just Iraq. In a valedictory luncheon hosted by the Monitor, Secretary of State Colin Powell relived a few of those moments and defended the administration's overall foreign policy. Since their rocky beginning, US relations with Russia, for instance, have only improved, he said. The expulsion of diplomats ended after one round of tit for tat, and the two sides started to "do business."
Similarly, US relations with China have seldom been better. The US has managed the difficult feat of drawing closer to both India and Pakistan. US forces have eliminated bad regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and continue to fight terrorism wherever they find it. "I think it's a pretty good record," says Powell.
The dust-up with Russia - which followed the US discovery that FBI agent Robert Hanssen had spied for Russia, and before that the Soviet Union, for more than a decade - was perhaps Powell's initiation at Foggy Bottom. But it was somewhat scripted, as it followed unwritten rules worked out during the cold war.
The Bush administration's first major unpredictable row was with China. On April 1, 2001, the US got word that a Chinese fighter plane had collided with a US espionage aircraft off the Chinese coast. The Chinese pilot was lost, and the US plane and its crew were forced down on Chinese territory. "The Chinese had more of a problem than we did because it was their pilot who had been killed ... They really had to worry about public opinion, believe it or not, amazingly," said Powell.
After a few days, Powell and his Chinese counterparts began to realize that things had gotten out of hand, with too many strong statements by both sides. Eventually a compromise was struck, with the US saying it was sorry for the incident but not apologizing. But both sides had seen how a spark between them could be dangerous.
"From that point on, we sat down with the Chinese foreign minister ... and we said we have got to find ways to work together. And we have worked together very well ever since," says Powell.
The Chinese have played constructive roles in addressing concerns regarding North Korea's nuclear development, among other things, according to the US secretary of State. But for all the positive items dealing with Russia, or China, or US work on international HIV/AIDS prevention, or world economic aid, Iraq and the larger terror war are the issues by which historians may well gauge Powell's tenure at State.
Violence is unlikely to end in Iraq even following a successful election, says Powell. US troops are likely to remain there in large numbers at least through 1995.
But Washington didn't ignore international warnings that violence of this sort would follow a US takeover of Iraq, according to the secretary of State. "I don't know of any reporting anyone saw that anticipated an insurgency of this level," said Powell.
Nor did Powell himself warn President Bush against going to war. His advice to Bush (often misreported, he said) prior to last year's military operations was that any confrontation with Saddam Hussein would be a difficult one. It should be taken to the UN first - and it was.
Powell said he told Mr. Bush that the administration would eventually approach a "Y" intersection, with one road leading to continued negotiations and one to combat. But he said there was never any doubt that he would back the administration no matter which course it took. "When I go on a long patrol, I go on a long patrol," said Powell.
The secretary of State responded forcefully to questions concerning his own appearance before the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, in which he presented a summary of US charges against the Iraqi regime.
Two aspects of that presentation have not subsequently been proven true, said Powell: the assertion that Saddam Hussein likely had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq possessed mobile biological weapons labs.
But much of it represented the best estimate at the time of intelligence agencies - the CIA and the State Department's own intelligence division, as well as foreign services. It was not something constructed in Secretary Powell's Foggy Bottom office from espionage scraps. "It wasn't an exaggeration, and it wasn't a falsehood," says Powell of the overall presentation.
As to his view of Bush, the man, Powell demurred, except to note that he feels it a privilege to have served the past four years.
About his own plans, Powell said only that he would take some time off after leaving office, and then do something that combined making a living with his charitable interests. Running for president is not something he will do. On that issue, he gave his stock answer: not interested. "Running for elective office would not fit me," he said.