Tuesday, March 29, 2011

London March 29

Clinton flew into London last night for today's international conference on Libya. The timing was a little tough -- NATO has only just figured out how they are going to take control of "the mission", and Obama was due to make his big televised Libya speech to the nation on Monday evening.

We left in the morning and flew through the day, arriving at around 11:45 p.m. at Stanstead airport. This is a long way out of London..at least 1-1/4 hours by van. But it was late and there was nobody on the road. About halfway through the drive everybody received the White House email of Obama's Libya speech and started to read it immediately on their blackberries. By the time we arrived at the hotel the speech was over.

We are staying at a Marriott next to Hyde Park. When the daylight came you could look out over the park and see the silhouette of the "Gherkin" building in the distance through the trees. And the red double decker London buses whiz past. We sat up for a while taking to the head of disaster coordination for USAID (who is here to help with planning for the humanitarian relief effort that everyone expects to start once the fighting ends). He was just finished dealing with the Japanese tsunami/meltdown -- and worried that Congress is going to halve his budget next year despite the string of catastrophes that seems to unfolding around the world.

Up this morning early for a "background" briefing with a "senior administration official" -- nothing new in it, but at least some fresh quotes to start the day. These set-piece conference news stories are always sort of a drag: there are rarely any surprises, there is almost no access, and there is a lot of waiting.

We moved over to the conference center around midday -- whizzing past Buckingham Palace just as the guard was changing -- and took our seats in another cavernous room half full of people batting away at their laptops. We now await Clinton's "intervention" (code for 'speech') at the conference, and then her press conference later in the day. After that, we head back to the plane and home.

Speaking of the plane, here's a photo. It is pretty much the view we always have (in fact, for me, better than normal -- I pulled one of the "business class" seats in the seat lottery). It feels as though everyone spends a lot of time on this plane...reading, sleeping, just sitting and watching the flight map move VERY slowly. When I get home tonight I will have flown across the Atlantic four times in 9 days.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Paris March 18-19

The State Dept put together this on Friday as a last minute trip -- and must have been exhausting for Clinton, who only arrived home from Tunisia on Thursday! With things moving on Libya very quickly and Obama due to visit Brazil himself on Saturday, he sent Clinton back to Paris to represent the U.S. at a "summit" called by Sarkozy to discuss the next steps on Libya.

It was very unclear all afternoon how this would work and whether or not she would take press with her. As a matter of principle we want to be on these trips, but it is a little nervewracking to be sitting in the office at 5 p.m. and not knowing whether you are going or not in a couple of hours.

In the end, we were going -- so we all went back to the State Dept at 8 p.m. to get the shuttles out to Andrews. Clinton arrived about an hour later, looking tired, and then the 8 hour flight to Paris.

We arrived at 11 a.m. local time, and the conference was due to start at 1 p.m. We ended up at the ambassador's residence, parked in a side room, while Clinton got it together and went to the Elysee Palace for the closed door meeting. There was a lot of waiting around -- we never knew if were were going to get her statement, and what it might say. Obama had laid out the rationale for U.S. involvement in the effort to enforce the latest UN sanctions on Libya, but there were still real questions about when and how. Meanwhile the news coming in from Libya itself was increasingly dire as Gaddafi's troops pressed ahead against the rebels in Benghazi.

Sarkozy has been a big hawk on Libya and when he came out to make his statement it was to say that French Mirage fighters were already "in action" over the country. Clinton came back and talked to us afterward and again stressed Washington's line that it is not "in charge" of this operation but is merely supporting its allies (and the Arab countries that had signed up..Qatar and UAE) in their enforcement effort. It all seemed sort of plausible until about two hours later when the Pentagon announced something like 120 cruise missile strikes on Libya..limited engagement?

We could only catch glimpses of Paris, a few of which are here. There was the lady walking her dog with its own fur ruff, and then I found (again) the crazy Dior headquarters with its equally crazy men's fashion. A friend pointed out that this outfit might be something Gaddafi himself would wear -- Dictator Elvis, By Dior. We went out for dinner on Saturday night to a place recommended nearby. INTERMINABLE wait once we were seated (like 50 minutes!) for a waiter to come by and there were several moments when we felt like it was just the French putting us on...are they really THAT un-service oriented? When the guy showed up he was nice enough tho, and we had to admit the food was excellent. I had a beautifully cooked but not too big piece of beef (compared to the giant cheapo American porterhouse) and some fried goat cheese....excellent!

Perhaps because this was a last minute trip, the hotel was different from the big box glass Hiltons or whatever we usually stay in (also because Clinton herself flew back to the U.S. on Saturday night, so they didn't have to worry about security). What we got was a very nice, very comfortable old hotel complete with creaky central elevator (2 person maximum). My room was on the 7th and top floor and sort of under the eaves...you could open the full window and look out over the courtyard and the nearby roofs....seemed ideal.

This morning I got up a little early to take a walk on what was a brisk but beautiful sunny Sunday morning. These are the kinds of moments that make these trips..I was alone in Paris, and there was hardly anybody on the streets. I walked back past the Champs Elysees and all the beautiful buildings of old central Paris, across the Seine, got a good view of the Eiffel Tower.....it felt, briefly, like I was actually IN Paris!

Then back to the hotel, back on a bus, back on the plane, and back to DC. We'll see what happens next.