Meetings with senior leaders of foreign governments are the meat and potatoes of any secretary of state's day.
Journalists who travel with the secretary of state quickly learn there are certain rhythms to the beat, and many revolve around that most mundane part of any government official's job: the meeting.
Whether Condoleezza Rice is in Washington or traveling abroad, much of her time is spent getting ready for a meeting with foreign minister x or prime minister y. She then attends the meeting. Then another. And another. Later there are meetings with her senior advisors to discuss the previous meetings.
Of course there are meetings to plan for future meetings. The office of the Secretary of State has a specific unit of people whose job it is to plan foreign travel and advance every detail of the visit, including the motorcade routes, the media interviews, and the speeches to local academic or civic groups. Time is of the essence and everything is tightly scripted for both practical and security-related reasons, especially during foreign travel.
Which brings us to Khartoum, Sudan's capital, where all the finely tuned planning went off the tracks last week. From the schedule you knew it was going to be a long and grueling day. Rice arrived in Khartoum at 1 am last Thursday after a seven-hour flight across Africa from her previous stop in Dakar, Senegal. Her first scheduled meeting was at 7:30 am at her hotel. Meetings with Sudanese government officials were to be followed by an hour and a half flight to a refugee camp in Sudan's Darfur province, and then it was on to Israel for meetings that evening and the next two days. Nothing terribly unusual so far.
The Khartoum schedule called for three separate meetings with senior Sudanese government officials, each in a different location. Rice's motorcade would take her from the hotel to the foreign ministry, then to the palace and finally to the Presidential residence before her traveling party went to the airport for the flight to Darfur.
The first two meetings, with Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail and First Vice President John Garang went off smoothly. The only hitch was an American flag placed so that it was touching the floor. One of Rice's media aides who arrived early at the foreign ministry with the television network pool crew and a few reporters quickly fixed the problem, placing a small stool under the flag stand. Diplomatic glitch averted. The photo op would show all was well.
Then it was off to the residence of President Omar Al Bashir. That's where things came unhinged.
The motorcade brought Secretary Rice, her senior staff and traveling press to the heavily guarded presidential compound. Vehicles carrying Rice and a few senior aides made it inside the residence as planned, but Sudanese security officials kept some members of her staff at the outer gate. One of those left behind was Gemal Helal, Rice's Arabic interpreter. A fuming Helal exchanged words-- blunt and direct would be the diplomatic way to put it-- with the local security officials, making it clear their president wouldn't be able to understand Rice unless he was permitted into the meeting. Helal soon after was whisked through the gates in a security car, and the rest of the staff and a press van were finally allowed into the compound. Small problem overcome.
About this time, at the doors to the presidential residence, Sudanese security guards started pushing and shoving some of Rice's staff and members of the press. U. S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, a 6'5" onetime tight end on the West Point football team, pushed a couple of Rice's aides past the security men and into the meeting room. But Odierno, who travels with Rice as a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several others, including U.S. AID Director Andrew Natsios, Sean McCormack, Rice's spokesman, and Jim Wilkinson, a senior advisor to Rice, never made it into the meeting room. There were several exchanges of angry words between Wilkinson and the security officials.
McCormack took the high road. He argued forcefully with officials from the foreign ministry and the president's office who were on the scene. The Sudanese diplomats seemed to have little influence on their security colleagues. At one point, McCormack said when Secretary Rice travels the press is allowed into the photo ops. That was greeted by "no, no, it's not a free press" from a Sudanese official.
Rice's senior advisor, Jim Wilkinson, told reporters who had made it into a waiting area just outside the meeting room that "American officials were being grabbed at the front door and manhandled." Clearly exercised, Wilkinson continued venting his outrage at what was happening. "Diplomacy 101 says you don't rough your guests up," he said, pleased to be on the record.
After a few minutes, a Sudanese diplomat, Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed, emerged to apologize, telling journalists it was "not their intention to prevent you from doing your job." Oh, really!
Finally, the last group of journalists and cameramen were allowed in for a photo op. A reporter asked a question of Bashir. When he didn't answer (the Sudanese didn't want any questions asked), a follow up question was posed. That's when a Sudanese security official put his hand on the arm of the reporter asking the question and started to drag her out of the room. That ended the meeting and within a minute or two we were back in the vans headed to the airport.
Secretary Rice told reporters on her plane it was "outrageous" behavior and "they had no right to manhandle my staff and the press." She said she had made a formal protest to the foreign ministry. Finally, realizing how seriously the Americans were taking the incident, the foreign minister called Rice aboard her plane to apologize before she landed in Darfur.
By now, the reporters on board had filed stories about the incident. Hours later we were still filing stories and being interviewed for other stories. The next day the incident was still making news.
The Secretary of State continued her travel, visiting the refugees at the Abu Shouk refugee camp near Al Fasher. The hour and a half stop was to have been the focus of Rice's trip but the pushing and shoving of diplomats and reporters had, inexplicably, overshadowed the plight of Darfur's refugees.
You can bet there will be meetings back in Washington on what happened and why. In Khartoum, the security officials involved will be dealt with, but whether that means a promotion or a demotion is unclear. In the meantime, the Sudanese foreign ministry people and the president's security personnel should have a meeting. The subject: Diplomacy 101.
What's your opinion? Charles Wolfson welcomes comments from readers of Diplomatic Dispatch and can be reached at email@example.com.
By Charles Wolfson