THE HAGUE, Netherlands - On his farewell trip through Europe this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered a consistent message in the Old World's corridors of power: America wants to move beyond the damaging rift over Iraq and reach out to begin a new era of cooperation.
At successive meetings in Sofia, Bulgaria, Brussels, Belgium and The Hague during which he saw most of the continent's foreign ministers, Powell spoke about America's desire for reconciliation.
For the most part, Europe's diplomats listened politely, smiled - and offered little.
Powell also engaged in a quieter, less conventional kind of diplomacy, one that yielded no grand initiatives but that could end up doing much to repair America's tarnished image in Europe.
In The Hague, Powell met yesterday for nearly an hour with 50 high school and college students in a session that was part fatherly pep talk, part defense of controversial U.S. actions in the world. He did the same thing in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, last Tuesday and will hold a third such session today in Rabat, Morocco, where he ends his trip at a forum of Arab and major industrial nations convened to study economic and political reform in the Middle East.
Meeting with youths has been a routine part of Powell's travels as secretary of state, but they carried special meaning on his continental swan song.
In Europe, where anti-American sentiments have given rise to caricatures of President Bush as a gun-slinging cowboy, the image of the U.S. secretary of state quietly explaining America's actions and exchanging easy banter with young people sends its own countervailing message.
Leaning casually on a stool in front of the group, the top U.S. diplomat offered a different portrayal of post-9/11 America.
Yesterday's meeting was taped and later shown to a national evening television audience. The session in Sofia had no TV cameras and resulted in a more relaxed, freewheeling session. The participants in the meetings are selected by local U.S. embassies.
Jess L. Baily, public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in The Hague, said the students at yesterday's session were not coached, nor were any limits placed on the questions they could ask the secretary.
Occasionally, news comes out of these sessions. After a particularly harsh exchange with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov earlier this week in Sofia over the crisis in Ukraine, Powell used a student's question to make comments that helped lower the political temperature, describing in soothing language the underlying strength of U.S.-Russian ties.
Yesterday, after he was asked about America's relationship with Iran, Powell provided new details of a dinner conversation with Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi at a meeting of foreign ministers from the Middle East and leading industrial nations last month in Sharm el-Sheikh.
"What we talked about was the fact that they have a young population [and] every year more and more people need jobs in Iran," Powell said.
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