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Top diplomat Kerry's personal diplomacy piles up the miles

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he boards his aircraft to depart London October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he boards his aircraft to depart London October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

By Lesley Wroughton

LONDON (Reuters) - If it's Saturday, it must be Paris. Or Kabul. Or perhaps Bali, Kuala Lumpur or London.

At the end of a grueling 13-day trip to Southeast Asia, Europe and Afghanistan, John Kerry is already building a reputation for globe-trotting to rival that of predecessor Hillary Clinton, who was one of the most-traveled U.S. secretaries of state.

Clinton launched into her role as the top U.S. diplomat after the disappointment of losing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, piling up huge numbers of air miles as the face of the new administration of President Barack Obama.

In her first year in the job, she traveled 206,000 miles to 44 countries on official business, according to State Department figures.

Kerry already has surpassed that figure, flying 213,028 miles since only February to 34 countries over 107 days as a surge in talks over Syria's civil war and renewed Middle East peace negotiations helped take him the equivalent of 8 1/2 times around the world.

Part of the heavy travel load comes with the job. But much of it is pure Kerry, whose penchant for what aides describe as "personal diplomacy" is all about face-to-face encounters with foreign leaders.

The 69-year-old former senator and 2004 Democratic U.S. presidential nominee made an unannounced visit to Kabul last week for one-on-one talks with President Hamid Karzai after scrapping plans to visit the Philippines due to a typhoon.

"He decided that making this trip, spending the time, rolling up his sleeves and doing personal diplomacy, which you all know he enjoys doing, was important," a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said en route to Kabul.

Kerry stayed way longer in the Afghan capital than planned, extending his discussions on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until the sun was setting over the presidential palace. He canceled a dinner appointment 3,500 miles away in Paris with the Saudi foreign minister to discuss Syria and Egypt.

The personal touch seemed to work with Karzai. The pair reached a preliminary deal that would keep some U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond a 2014 deadline.

Needing to get out of Kabul to begin his next journey, Kerry cut short a news conference with Karzai announcing the draft agreement after what amounted to almost 24 hours of talks over two days.

"I have to get on the plane," Kerry told the news conference as an aide tapped his watch to signal to the secretary it was time to leave. "And I apologize because we would like to stay longer," he added.

With the Paris dinner scrubbed, Kerry headed instead to London for lunch with European Union representative Catherine Ashton on Sunday and a meeting on Monday with the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, before returning to Washington on Monday night.

In the eight months since he succeeded Clinton, Kerry has repeatedly juggled priorities amid a virtually non-stop travel schedule that has left many around him often exasperated and exhausted.

If he keeps up his current pace, Kerry might also eclipse Condoleezza Rice, who chalked up 214,000 miles in her first year as secretary of state in 2005 while the Iraq insurgency was raging.

By the time Clinton left office this year, she had overtaken Madeleine Albright's record of most countries visited by a U.S. secretary of state.

Kerry has some way to go to catch up with Clinton's overall travel total. The former secretary of state ran up a total of 956,523 miles, visiting 214 countries between 2009 and 2012, according to State Department data.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)

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