Friday, December 3, 2010

Bahrain Dec 3

Ok so YES we did have lunch at the palace of the King of Bahrain today. It was something...all the marble, gowned sheikhs and colossal chandeliers you could hope for. The food was also fantastic, which was a bonus.

We weren't eating with the king, mind you. Clinton came to pay her respects and have lunch, and (as I guess is the practice at any royal palace) we in the retinue were shown to a separate room where they laid on the feast. Lots of lamb, chicken tikka, rice, stuffed grape leaves...the whole kebab. I didn't really get to snooop around the palace (see entrance above) but did pay a visit to the bathroom and was gratified to discover what at least looked like gold-plated fixtures.

Otherwise it's been a pretty exhausting day. We followed Clinton to a meeting with the Bahrain foreign minister in the morning which was followed by a press conference. She said a few things about Iran and about the Middle East peace process, so that was two stories going right there.

Then the palace, then on to the U.S. Embassy for the traditional meet-and-greet, then to the Bahrain museum for another one of her "townterviews". We were all dragging at this point and maybe she was too because she said, in response to a question, that being secretary of state would be her last public job.

We're now at the Ritz, waiting for the "Manama Dialogue" -- a security conference. Everyone is expecting her to say something more about Iran, but with the Geneva talks looming next week she may not want to go too far. We'll see..she could surprise us yet.

After that, 17 hours back to Andrews AFB. But at least I had lunch at a king's.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan, Dec 2

This was sort of a wild day. We woke up in Astana to gusty freezing winds off the steppe..the winds actually went all night, rattling the windows of the hotel. There was an added attraction in the form of a drunk night-time singer in one of the rooms down the hall...mournful Russian songs, punctuated by yells and laughs. I think he was alone. Altogether it was a little spooky, which is strange for such a futuristic city.

We convoyed back out the airport and got on the plane to Kyrgyzstan. The two places are very different: where Kazakhstan is flat, cold and looks at least potentially rich, Kyrgyzstan is flush up against the foothills of the Himalayas, more temperate, and looks poor. I actually liked Bishkek's looks a lot better than I did's a small, grey city but most of the streets are lined with birch trees and it seemed to have some kind of street life going on.

Clinton did a press conference with the president, one of the few women heads of state in the world, and then we rushed off for another of her "townterviews" at a local university. The students all spoke and asked questions in English and the questions were good -- ranging from how Kyrgyzstan should navigate its future as a democratic countries surrounded by authoritarian neighbors, to what the U.S. plan is for dealing with North Korea. Clinton excels at these events, and I think she enjoys them..she usually stays late to answer as many questions as she can.

After that it was off to the Manas air base -- the real reason the U.S. cares about Kyrgyzstan, because its the main transit hub for troops into Afghanistan. The U.S. seems to have perusaded the new Kyrgyz government to keep allowing U.S. use of the base (which is basically one side of the main airport). It was a slice of military America: pre-fab buildings, soldiers in uniform etc. etc. Clinton gave a brief speech thanking them, and her inner politician came to the fore yet again. You can see how she would (or maybe still might one day be) president.

Then it was back to the airport and an hour flight to Uzbekistan. This is a more problematic stop. Uzbekistan also helps out the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, but its president is a ruthless autocrat who excuses a lot of his repression as a necessary tactic to battle Islamic extremism. Clinton has to walk a fine line here because it looks pretty bad, on the surface, for her to be sitting down with a thug like this. But they've got their rationale down pat: that these visits are a useful chance to personally press for human rights reform. It sounds persuasive when she says it, but you have to wonder. She had no public events with journalists here, so while the foreign press was told about the U.S. message on human rights, we have no way of knowing it it reached anybody in Uzbekistan...

That said, Tashkent looked sort of cool. Lots of big, Soviet style buildings, but lots of lights. The Foreign Ministry guest house, where we waited for Clinton to finish her meeting with the president, is a fantastic Central Asian confection from the times of Imperial Russa. It was apparently once a Romanov hunting lodge, and it is decorated with fantastic traditional murals. They put out a buffet of local pasteries which were fantastic, and (we thought) gave us each a figurine of a traditional Uzbek figure. About half an hour later someone came back and said there had been a mistake, those figurines were NOT in fact gifts, so we had to give them all back....weird.

From here its 5 hours to Bahrain, where we are supposed to get in at about 2 in the morning.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kazakhstan, Nov30-Dec 1

Pretty lousy picture of Astana I'm afraid, but this is about all I've seen of it. We arrived late last night from Washington after a 17-hour flight, and emerged into a pretty frigid winter night on the Kazakh steppe.

The country -- dripping with oil profits, and not many people -- is on a Chinese-style building spree, and driving into the new capital (only 10 years old at this point) has a sort of "arriving in Las Vegas" feel to it: lots of big, oddly shaped towers, lots of neon, and LOTS of Christmas decorations. Lit Christmas trees, Santa statues, blinking snowflakes -- they're everywhere, and it all feels a little weird for a Muslim country.

Astana itself doesn't seem to have much going for it besides its questionable architecture. A lot of the things mentioned on the tourist map aren't even built yet, and the brutal climate (40 degrees below zero Celsius in the winter, 40 degrees above Celsius in the summer) makes it look like "street life" is never going to one of Astana's strong suits.

We're here for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit and it looks like most of the city's hotels are full of official delegations. We've landed at the "Akku Hotel", which from the outside looks like the Federal Reserve (all Greek columns and impressive staircase) and on the inside is heated to about 100 degrees.

But after 17 hours on a plane, any bed, is welcome and I managed to sleep pretty well after two bowls of lentil soup in the restaurant, where waiters and hangers-on outnumbered the paying guests by about five to one.

We spent the day at the OSCE summit site -- another brand new, weirdly-shaped building -- and after what seemed like an eternity finally made it back to the hotel for what looks like another dinner of lentil soup.

The story has been sort of fun, because Clinton has had to spend a lot of time placating foreign leaders about the Wikileaks release of embassy cables. Nobody seems seriously put out by them -- I guess all officials at that level of government would understand that there are some things you just don't want to make public.

Tomorrow it is on to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and then Bahrain.