Saturday, May 26, 2012

Baghdad May 22-24

This is a first for this blog -- a trip without Clinton.

The "P5+1" nuclear talks with Iran were set for Baghdad, at Tehran's request, and these are held at the "political director" level, two rungs below secretary of state. But with what Obama has called "the drums of war" sounding louder, Reuters decided it would be good to have somebody go with the State Department team. And that somebody was me.

It's a long trip from DC, and not just in distance. We had to meet up with the State Department delegation in Amman on Tuesday to be ready to fly into Baghdad on Wednesday, and that meant leaving Washington on Sunday afternoon. After the relative ease of flying on Clinton's plane, this is a trip done solo -- airports, connections, baggage, taxis..the normal stuff. I arrived in Amman late on Monday (after having breakfast in Paris with my old colleague from AFP, Christophe Schmidt) and then spent Tuesday waiting for the State people, who showed up in mid-afternoon. Then more waiting while the political directors of the P5 had their last meeting before the Baghdad talks, and an off-the-record briefing at about 11 p.m..

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad -- the largest U.S. embassy on the planet -- runs what it calls "embassy air" between Amman and Baghdad to keep the U.S. personnel cycling through. We went on these planes -- two turboprops -- but it was touch and go until the last minute because one of Iraq's huge sandstorms had closed Baghdad airport. The sand lifted and we departed, and two hours later I was back in Baghdad.


I've now been to Baghdad at least three times and I have no idea what the real city looks like. When I was here in 2005 we were under strict security instructions never to leave the Reuters compound, so I didn't see anything beyond our own blast-wall lined alleyway. On the Biden trip for July 4, 2009, we saw "Camp Liberty", the huge U.S. military base, but nothing of the city. This time I was hoping I'd get to see more, but that was not to be -- we were stuck in the Green Zone and pretty much locked in at the conference site, so the real Baghdad remains a mystery.

You do get a little sense of Saddam's Baghdad, tho. All the journalists were billeted at the Rasheed Hotel, which in Saddam's time was the government's hotel of choice. Now managed by a Turkish company, the Rasheed is trying to get itself back in business and it sort of seems like a normal hotel...until you walk in the room and are confronted with a bleary, aquarium glass window...bullet proof, perhaps an inch thick, and unopened in 20 years. The whole place had a fish tank aspect...looking out you could see an empty tennis court, a few struggling palm trees, and in the distance the "Victory Arch" made of two giant hands (modeled on Saddam's) holding crossed swords. All covered in a light brown dust.

We also arrived Saddam style, coming in through the special VIP airport terminal (see picture). It was a hilarious place, done inside in hugely overstuffed furniture, crystal chandeliers, oriental rungs, etc. I'll put a picture of the furniture at the end .. what you can't really make out is that the buttons holding in the "tufts" are fake diamonds.

The talks themselves were held at the new government guesthouse -- a sort of government hotel (newer than the Rasheed) which had sufficient security. The diplomats were all inside, holding their meetings, and the press were kept penned outside in what looked like a famine-relief tent. When we walked in our hearts sank -- it was already packed with Iraqi journalists (mostly burly guys from TV crews, smoking cigarettes and chatting). They had tried to set up air conditioners but they didn't really work, so it was boiling. And the promised Internet connections went up and down like a yo-yo. The Iraqis certainly tried to put things together, but the logistics were impossible. They had a separate tent where periodically they brought out trays of food (sample menu: Iraqi pizza, Iraqi french fries, bread, deep fried chicken bits) which immediately set off a feeding frenzy among the big-bellied TV crews, who emerged carrying paper plates stacked with carbs and immediately brought them back into the main tent, followed by swarms of flies. Great.

The talks had initially been set for one day, but at about 4 or five in the afternoon we heard they were running late. And they did...ending at about 11 p.m. and set to continue the next day. We didn't have much news to file, but the State Department took us back to the Embassy where we got a briefing (at 1 a.m. or so) from the U.S. delegation. This was pretty useful because it was some of the first real comment/info on what had happened in the meetings. So that meant we had to update our story at 2 a.m. or so - and the next day we went back to the conference center at 8 a.m. Sleep deprivation was a big part of this trip.

Luckily Reuters had a couple of other people there, including our EU correspondent who has followed these talks in the past, so I didn't have to explain it all myself. Its a complicated dance -- uranium enrichment levels, different sanctions from different countries, various suspect Iranian sites -- and all of the pieces overlap in different ways. On Thursday we were back at the talks site, and a second sandstorm blew up, turning the sky a hazy orange and bringing dust into the mix inside the press tent. When I opened the laptop to write this, you could see the thick film of dust across the screen and keyboard. It was another day of waiting..periodic emails to government press contacts inside the building, but not much information. And no idea when, or if, we would be leaving. Everybody was pretty eager to get out of there, including the delegations. But the talking and haggling went on..and on..and on. At about 4 we were told to get ready for a press conference, and there was a mad rush for the room where it would be held...elbows flying, TV crews shoving, the whole bit. But once everybody got inside (through another security check) it was announced it had been delayed to 7. So more waiting around, back out through security to try to go to the bathroom (two stalls for the whole crowd..not pretty).

The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, did finally come out around 7:30 and say her piece -- tough talks, which seemed to yield nothing but the agreement to talk again. The two sides remain so far apart on the basic issues (whether Iran has the right to refine uranium, and whether the West is right to impose sanctions) that you wonder how any deal could ever get off the ground. But both sides have a clear diplomatic interest in at least continuing to talk about that is what they are going to do, next month in Moscow.

After Ashton's press conference we were hustled straight out of the press conference room. The U.S. delegation gave us another briefing, for about 15 minutes, and then it was into the motorcade for the ride to the airport. They didn't have buses so it looks we got every armored Mercedes in Iraq -- a whole delegation plus press chauffered out three to a car. I was rushing to send through notes and quotes from the U.S. briefings to the Reuters guys in Baghdad to add to the story, and finally sent the last bit as we reached the airport. More milling around there, with the diplomats from the P5 in one grand reception room and the few scraggly members of the press and lower-ranking staff in another (less grand) one, but all featuring the Saddam overstuffed furniture. We got onto the plane and were out by 10 p.m. -- arriving back in Amman after midnight.

Since I'd had enough of Amman I went down to the Dead Sea, where I went last time I left Iraq. Getting there at 3 a.m. kind of reduces the pleasure, but it was nice to be able to be outside and it is a starkly beautiful place. I didn't get in the water this time tho..I remember last time I did and it hurt like crazy, with salt being rubbed into every open pore. Now I'm sitting in Paris, half way home and really ready to get there


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New Delhi May 8

Just adding a couple of shots of what must be one of the most attractive U.S. Embassies out there...designed by the guy who did the Kennedy Center (looks like he just repurposed the original drawings). Called "Roosevelt House", the embassy was opened in 1959 and features the main building -- with a great floating seal of the United States -- and the twin ambassador's residence, with the fantastic hanging light fixtures and breezeblocks....

Inside, not so much. But the outside is really striking. After Clinton did her "meet and greet" with the embassy staff, it was great to see them pouring out of the ambassador's house -- every size and color, Indian women in saris, blonde kids, Asian-American staff...looked like a 1960's LIFE Magazine cover about the hopeful future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Calcutta-Delhi May 7-8

We had a good bit of culture yesterday. After arriving in Calcutta, Clinton went to a cultural center where she talked to groups involved in efforts to end human trafficking. Enforced labor, and sex servitude, is a huge problem in India and Clinton has made it one of her many causes. It is referred to, at least within the State Department, as TIP (i.e. Trafficking in Persons), so these things are called "TIP events."

This TIP event was pretty good. The main group, organized by one of these powerhouse Indian women, is devoted to training women who have escaped from enforced prostitution in "emotive dance". It sounds absurd, but their performance was pretty effective: they sang (well), and did a sort of modern version of Indian dance punctuated by a lot of loud, yoga-style breathing. The net effect was very immediate: you felt the women were telling a very personal story about their experiences.

Clinton watched the show and then talked to them for a while. Then the whole calvacade moved on to the Victoria Monument, which is old Calcutta's premier attraction (see picture). Its quite a beautiful building, but the museum inside was fairly modest. The main point of the visit was so that local journalists could get pictures of Clinton in the building's iconic archway. She complied...and the headline the next day was "Americans hail British edifice." Not sure that was quite the message that the State Department was seeking to get out!

We spent the night in Calcutta, and were up early this morning for more. Clinton went and did one of her "Town Hall" meetings at a girl's school, moderated by an Indian TV journalist known as "India's Oprah" (it seems everywhere she goes she is introduced by someone known as "X-country's Oprah"). The questions were ok, and the MC was very lively so on the whole it was a better production than in Bangladesh.

From there we went to to the West Bengal government building, where Clinton had a meeting with the province's new chief minister, a woman who has fought her way up in local politics and is now an increasingly important national figure. After the welcome (see the main pic) the two of them went behind closed doors, so we were left milling about in the hallways of the old British-style building. It really looked the way I imagine India to look: fans slowly swirling, lots of people milling around doing not much.

Then, back in the plane for the two hour trip to Delhi. I feel as though I was just here -- the last Clinton trip had us here in July, so the whole thing (at least the hotel) looks pretty familiar. This time, however, they cornered me to give me the welcome mark and floral lei....!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dhaka May 5-6

We left Beijing around noon. Following all of the hectic behind-closed-doors activity over the dissident Chen, Clinton and her team were in complete radio silence. It was a bizarre few days, and I didn't come away feeling that they were 100 pct sure the new deal they had for his U.S. studies would actually hold.

It was strange that one guy had essentially held the U.S.-China relationship hostage, and that all of the interchanges between Americans and Chinese -- which is what, about 1.7 billion people -- were riding on the outcome of this one thing. Of course it wasn't entirely true. The whole point of the episode, or at least the point that the State Department wanted to emphasize, was that the relationship was "broader" than any one single issue, and would keep chugging along. But Chen certainly managed to complicate things, and I think it goes to the broader frictions that are going to keep popping up inevitably between the two political cultures.

After all of that, it was a relief to get to Bangladesh and a somewhat more straightforward story. Bangladesh has been dominated for decades by two political parties which are each run by feisty old ladies, who naturally hate each other. So the "battling begums" was the theme, underscored by a rash of general strikes and new political disappearances that has everyone on edge. Clinton met them both, and tried to make some public pronouncements about how important it is to uphold rule of law, civil discourse etc. But they've been at it so long, and the hatreds are so deep, the State people didn't have much hope she'd make an impact.

We sat in the prime minister's office (flanked by the sort of sad metal tigers pictured above) for a while while they met, and then got in the bus back to the hotel. It was hard at nighttime to get any sense of Dhaka, but it didn't look quite as desperate as I'd imagined. Not pretty, but also not a favela. In daylight you couldn't see much more: lots of five or six story concrete buildings, lots of street life, lots of traffic. And HOT. Clinton had few events in the morning, including one of her "townterview" sessions (see picture). These sometimes work and sometimes don't, and in this case it didn't chiefly because the lady who was MC'ing was both tongue tied and dominating..she wouldn't let anybody else get a word in, but she could hardly get a sentence out herself. So..sort of a waste.

We went back out to the airport and took the 35 minute flight to Calcutta. They let me sit in the cockpit for the landing, which really was something. It is strange to be at the very front of the plane, looking forward -- you can start making out the air strip, and the pilots are conversing non-stop with the control tower (how they understood what the control tower guys were saying, in their rapid Indian accented English, was beyond me). Then they point the nose of the plane DOWN, a much sharper angle than you get a feel for sitting in the back cabin. You really feel like the whole thing is a controlled crash -- but thankfully well controlled. At about 200 feet the automatic voice starts counting down the altitude, and at about 100 feet it announces "DECISION HEIGHT" which I guess is the last point they might be able to pull up. It was also interesting to see how much they actually use the controls -- I had sort of assumed the whole thing was automatic. But these pilots (all regular Air Force) had their hands on the wheel, and you could see them push and prod the plane into the right trajectory.

We obviously made it down ok. Because I was up front I had to wait a bit to back, and when I did Clinton and all her staff were standing around in their cabin talking. I told her I had just landed the plane and she thanked me...(I got the feeling she'd heard that one before). We're in Calcutta now, where it is also ferociously hot. The rest of the day is pretty much down time: she goes out to a couple of small civil society events, and then a look at the Victoria Monument which is the big sight to see her. Should be interesting to see what Calcutta looks like. More on that next time.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beijing, May 2-5

Firstly, sorry this is showing up without paragraphs. I have no idea why except my computer has been acting strange all trip and doing odd and annoying things. This must be one of them. (UPDATE: I actually figured out how to make the pars in HTML, but have no idea why the program stopped doing it automatically)

Back in Beijing, and first time on the road with Clinton in a long time. It was supposed to be very boring -- the annual "Security and Economic Dialogue" between China and the United States, but suddenly got hijacked by the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng who showed up at the U.S. embassy. We have been scrambling.

The State Department had hoped that Chen - one of China's best known human rights figures, famous for his dark glasses -- would agree to leave before Clinton got here to save everybody some face. But he didn't, and when we showed up in Beijing on Wednesday he was still under U.S. protection. The situation has been so delicate that the State Department feels literally imposed a news blackout. They told us nothing before we left DC, nothing on the plane ride over, and nothing once we arrived. A very Chinese approach, all considered, and pretty frustrating when you are trying to tell people what is going on (how should we know, we're only traveling with Clinton).

Truth is, obviously, there was a lot of frantic work going on behind the scenes. But none of it was visible to us or anybody else, so after the 19 hour trip from Washington we had a free-ish day. I really just wanted to sleep but didn't want to waste the time here, so got together with some other people and went for a walk around my favorite part of the city Houhai Lake.

Beijing is never going to be (in its broader aspects) charming. It was hot for May, and the sky had the polluted yellow sheen that it gets on smoggy days. The huge new roads are heaving with cars, the big skyscrapers are shiny and featureless...although some of them are pretty cool looking. We got thru the traffic to Houhai and a little bit of old Beijing reasserted itself. Old men still swimming in the lake (no amount of money would get me into that water). The old alleys still looking more or less like themselves, although for the most part prettified up as this is a major tourist and nightlife area now. Lots of people walking around, dating Chinese kids on tandem bicycles, construction where they are rehabbing more of the old courtyard houses into new restaurants or shops or whatever.

I'm glad we went, just to see that it (however modified and neon lighted) is still there. But we got nervous after about an hour..worried that we would miss something from Clinton and feeling guilty that we hadn't done anything yet to merit this trip because we had zero information. So we went back to the hotel.

About 1/2 hour later the news broke that Chen was out, and the real work began. We've been going pretty much non-stop ever since (I had about four hours sleep last night, after the 19 hours on the plane). At first the State Department tried to pitch Chen's departure from the embassy as a big success, but pretty quickly it became clear that something else was up and by today he says he has had second thoughts and now wants U.S. asylum. Its a mess, and to have it happening right while Clinton is in town is a sort of diplomatic perfect storm

Today was spent at the "dialogue"...empty opening speeches and then waiting for them to finish. We did get an interview withe the U.S. ambassador which was more grist for the Chen mill, then came back to the hotel to write that up. More waiting and wondering how this is all going to play out.

Tonight things have wound down, thank goodness, because think that everybody on Clinton's team is totally exhausted as are we. Just came back from a very good Sichuan dinner in a restaurant around the corner from the hotel, which is in the new fancy part of town. Around here is the territory of the 1 pct of China, which makes for a lot of very rich people -- I'll close out with a picture from one of the stores.