WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) has been evasive about his future, skirting questions about the timing of his widely expected departure after four rough-and-tumble years as America's chief diplomat.
In dozens of interviews, Powell has dismissed questions about his plans by saying with a smile, "I serve at the pleasure of the president."
Powell has long been considered to be a one-term secretary of state, irrespective of whether Bush was re-elected. Speculation has been rife for months about possible successors in a second Bush term. Among those mentioned are national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) and U.N. Ambassador John Danforth (search).
Last July, Bush suggested during an appearance in Philadelphia that he would be happy if Powell were to remain on. The remark went virtually unnoticed by the media but caught the attention of Powell aides.
During a September interview with The Associated Press, Powell was asked whether he considered Bush's comment to be an invitation for him to stay on.
"Time will tell. We will see," Powell replied.
When asked Wednesday about Powell's plans, his spokesman, Richard Boucher, reverted to the usual language about "serving at the pleasure of the president."
One possibility would be for Powell to stay on for a brief period until after the national elections in Iraq, which are supposed to be held before the end of January 2005.
As analysts see it, a post-Iraq election departure for Powell would make more sense than one that could occur just days before the balloting in Iraq but after Bush's second term begins.
At a minimum, Bush's re-election means a series of foreign trips Powell plans will take on a more serious cast than they would have if Sen. John Kerry had prevailed Tuesday.
And the Bush victory means that his own trip to an Asia-Pacific summit meeting in Chile before Thanksgiving will involve substantive exchanges rather than farewell handshakes and polite banter.
The 20 or so Asia-Pacific leaders invited there will be eager to hear what Bush has in mind for the region in his second term.
For his part, Powell will travel to Mexico on Monday for an overnight visit. The following week, he plans to spend four days in Chile as part of the U.S. summit entourage. He then will fly to Egypt for a major international conference on Iraq's future, a meeting Powell hopes to use to expand international cooperation for Iraq.
He also will attend a NATO meeting in Brussels in December and possibly meetings of other trans-Atlantic groups in Europe. In addition, Powell will attend a meeting in Morocco next month to push the Bush administration's pro-democracy agenda for Arab countries.
In the coming days, Powell will be boning up on issues involving Mexico ahead of his Monday visit. Mexican officials will be eager to hear more about Bush's proposal to provide legal status — at least on a temporary basis — for millions of undocumented aliens in the United States. Mexico is the principal source of such migrants.
Renewable three-year work permits would be available for them if they can prove that they have a job and meet other criteria. Mexico strongly supports the initiative.
Bush proposed it last January but little has been heard about it since.
If Congress approves, officials say the new rules will make America safer by helping for the first time to document migrants who have no legal standing in the United States.