Rice in diplomatic race against time
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

AP, AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is running a worldwide race against time, trying for diplomatic victories before the Bush administration ends in January

With less than six months to go in office and unfinished business with Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, Rice has embarked on a grueling series of overseas trips and is packing in an impressive number of high-level meetings in Washington.

In June and July, Rice has literally circled the planet twice for talks on those issues and in the first three days of next week will see top officials from Pakistan, China, Israel, Italy as well as Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators.

Rice will be pressing the Pakistani prime minister to do more to combat militants along the Afghan border, seeking additional support from China on Iran and North Korea and assessing the slow pace of progress in the effort to conclude an Israel-Palestinian deal by year's end.

Although prospects for any of those are uncertain, it is not for lack of trying, even if critics say it may be too little, too late.

Administration officials are fond of saying President Bush wants to "sprint to the finish" and perhaps no other Cabinet member has logged more travel time in that endeavor than Rice who returns from her latest round-the-world jaunt on Monday and heads immediately into her Washington meetings.

That nine-day excursion was marked by unprecedented but inconclusive overtures to Iran and North Korea — the remaining two charter members of Bush's "axis of evil" — and began in the Persian Gulf before Singapore for an Asian security forum, then Australia, New Zealand and Samoa.

It came on the heels of a trip to Europe, where she signed a missile defense treaty in Prague and visited Georgia in a show of support for a NATO aspirant locked in a tense feud with Russia over separatist areas.

That was preceded by another globe-circling tour that started in Europe with a Palestinian security conference and ended in China after stops in Japan and South Korea that were focused on North Korea and a dispute over U.S. beef imports.

Although she'll take a brief break in the first week of August, she will then return to China to head up the official U.S. delegation to the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympic Games. Her schedule for September is not finalized but shows no sign of a letup.

Asked Saturday in New Zealand when she plans to slow down, Rice replied with a laugh: "January 20th, 12:01," referring to the exact time the next president will be inaugurated.

The spate of recent long-distance trips has put Rice on track to become one of the most traveled secretaries of state in U.S. history, according to State Department officials.

Her frenetic pace over the past two months has coincided with the heating up of the 2008 presidential campaign in which foreign policy has become a main point of contention between presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican hopeful John McCain.

And, it comes as Bush steps up efforts to secure nonmilitary foreign policy achievements to mark his eight years, particularly dealing with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs and reaching at least some form of peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The past two weeks have seen the administration make several remarkable breaks in past policy: sending a top diplomat to a meeting with Iran's nuclear negotiator and having Rice, while in Singapore, meet for the first time with North Korea's foreign minister.

Although neither produced breakthroughs, the meetings have been seen by many as important policy shifts that will boost confidence in Bush's insistence that he wants to deal with both countries diplomatically.

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