LOS ANGELES — The job of U.S. secretary of state requires skating on ice — sometimes thin — and dodging diplomatic bullets — even if they later are found to be blanks. From this standpoint, could the United States do any better than Colin Powell?

The former four-star general was on the road last week yet again. It was an eight-day, eight-country swing through much of South and Southeast Asia that he’ll probably remember as one of his finer stretches in office.

It started bumpily enough, though, in tension-filled South Asia, where India did not take kindly to his advice about “internationalizing” upcoming elections in disputed Kashmir and Jammu — and in Pakistan, which seemed irritated by the brevity of his visit there (five hours and on to Thailand).

In public at least, Powell was unruffled about the Indian rebuff. For in the court of public opinion, he had made his point: On both sides of the South Asian divide, improvement is needed: India has to practice democracy more, and Pakistan should sponsor terrorism less.

Then Powell went on to Brunei, site of a foreign-minister-level meeting hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where he produced winners. Not unexpectedly but significantly, one of the three charter members of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” showed up. You never know what the North Koreans will do. When Powell made himself available for a quick chat, North Korea’s foreign minister took the opportunity. The two had an “unplanned” get-together. It turned out to be the highest-level contact between Pyongyang and Washington — despite its brief, 15-minute duration — since the Bush administration took office. The instant effect was to resurrect South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s preternaturally wise but much-maligned “sunshine policy” of positive diplomacy with the North from the dead.

All week, Powell was the main-man-in-motion, also touching down for talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Singapore, Jakarta and Manila. Even more than the president of the U.S, the secretary of state in this interdependent age has to be a traveling man or woman. The job doesn’t need so much a glad-handing politician as it does a credible vicar and soft-spoken preacher for our nation’s foreign policy who doesn’t cause an otherwise loyal ally’s hair to stand on end or prompt an edgy foe to pump up the weapons budget.

Fortunately, Powell is no blunderbuss. He has been largely careful, as to some extent has been his counterpart at the Defense Department, Donald Rumsfeld, to recognize that the American way is not necessarily the only good way to go.

And so, after helping put together a pair of anti-terror pacts with ASEAN in Brunei last week, he went out of his way to avoid the usual American rah-rah triumphalism. Indeed, in Singapore, with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong looking on approvingly, he pointedly sought to make the reassuring point that the U.S. was not about to force antiterror troops down the throats of Asian governments. And any such deployments would be carefully crafted to fit into the local culture and customs, rather than antagonizing or even rolling over them. Said Powell: “That’s the way we go about these missions — try not to be heavy-handed, try to go to help.”

With this, Powell in effect joined hands with a recent predecessor, Warren Christopher, Clinton’s first secretary of State — also viewed as a dove but in fact a call-’em-as-I-see-’em pragmatist. In a wide-ranging speech earlier this year at UCLA, Christopher emphasized the urgent need for America to keep its ego under control if it wished to maximize its diplomatic effectiveness.

“While the United States might often be the architect of an initiative,” he said of the best approach, “other nations would join in the planning and construction, their views would have weight, and their interests would be respected. We might be the leader but not the boss.”

To be sure, Powell is not the boss and he knows who is. But he is the leader of the kinder, gentler American image abroad. Without him, the Bush administration risks losing ground internationally by seeming to want to grab too much of it; with him, it loses no ground at all simply by letting him lead.

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