Our first chance to fire questions at Secretary of State Rice came mid-way across the Atlantic, bound for the Gulf. She walked back to the press end of the plane (the back end) picked up the microphone to be heard over the aircraft, and started out gracious and composed as ever. That didn't last.
We quickly managed to tick her off, asking over and over, in several different ways: 'It's quid pro quo, right? You're offering the Saudis and the other Gulf states a lot of money -- billions of dollars in defense aid and arms sales. And in return you're going to tell them behind closed doors, to behave when it comes to meddling in Iraq, right? You're gonna tell them to stop funding radical Sunni groups/politicians/etc. right? And you're going to tell the Saudis in particular to stop criticizing the U.S.-led coalition, like Saudi's King Abdullah did last March, right?"
"It's not quid pro quo," she shot back at us, slightly exasperated, like we were a bunch of fifth graders who couldn't quite grasp the algebra problem. She kept saying, in different ways: They want what we want, a stable Iraq. We're having polite discussions toward that end. You got the distinct impression that this is what the Mideast leaders are in for: being politely verbally hammered into submission.
What she didn't say is that Washington and Riyadh haven't exactly seen eye-to-eye lately on how to bring that about, so Riyadh has been solo-ing – coming up with its own diplomatic solutions, like providing support to Iraq's Sunni politicians and tribesmen. The Saudis believe their brother Sunnis in Iraq are being unfairly menaced by Iraq's Shi'ite-led government, which has ties to the Saudi's nemesis Iran. But U.S. officials say that Saudi support has ended up further dividing Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites, just when the U.S. is trying to get them to work together.
What Secretary of State Condi Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have to do in the upcoming meetings is convince the Saudis and the other Gulf states to try it Washington's way for a while, or else.
The "or else"? The bad cop in this equation is the U.S. Congress, parts of which have already threatened to make sure that big multi-billion-dollar Saudi-Egypt-Gulf defense aid package Condi and Bob have come to town with...is D.O.A., if the Saudis and friends don't toe the American line.
And that sounds a lot like "quid pro quo."