Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a sitting administration official, does not have any role at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte. But she seems to gone out of her way to avoid the festivities, as she is traveling this week and next to the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, Timor-Leste, Brunei, and Russia.
"The Cook Islands this year are the hosts of one of the most important institutions of the Pacific called the Pacific Island Forum," a senior State Department official said Thursday. "It's a group that meets yearly with a number of working groups. It's been in existence almost half a century; it's very significant."
It's not Charlotte, but it is a big gathering. Last year, the administration sent 50 officials to the forum, representing 17 different federal agencies. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides led the delegation in 2011. The official said this trip was part of the administration's rebalancing toward Asia, with a special focus on the smaller countries around the region's periphery.
"Sometimes when we talk about the Asia Pacific, the A is the capital and P is small. And our attempt here is to underscore that we have very strong, enduring, strategic, moral, political, humanitarian interests across the region. It's an area in which we invested substantially historically -- blood and treasure," the official said.
"I just returned about two weeks ago from my own trip around the Pacific," the State Department official said. (Your humble Cable guy did did not attend the briefing, so we have no direct knowledge of the identity of the briefer, but the State Department publicly announced the foreign travel of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell earlier this month.)
Clinton will meet in the Cook Islands with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and will be joined by Pacific Command head Adm. Sam Locklear, the anonymous State Department official said.
In Indonesia, Clinton will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Expect her to press Indonesia to work better with other ASEAN countries to come to a consensus position on how to confront China over the South China Sea. ASEAN failed to come to a consensus position at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, despite Washington's urgings.
Next, Clinton is off to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping, and State Councilor Dai Bingguo. She will also have "intense meetings" with Foreign Minister Yang Jiachi, the official said. Topics on the agenda include the South China Sea, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
"I think the secretary intends very clearly to underscore our continuing interest in maintaining a strong, positive relationship between our two countries," the official said. "We recognize how critically important that is, and one of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have differing perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case in the water."
After Beijing, Clinton will go to Timor-Leste and visit a coffee plantation. Next is Brunei, which will host the East Asia Summit in 2013, probably after Clinton leaves office. Then, she will go to an island off the shore of Vladivostok for the APEC summit, where she'll lead a large U.S. delegation and will likely hold a series of high-level bilateral meetings.
Pressed to explain exactly how the administration plans to advance U.S. and allied interests related to the South China Sea dispute on the trip, the official offered few specifics.
"I would say that the United States has sought to articulate a very clear set of principles that animate our strategic approach to the Asia Pacific region, and particularly to the South China Sea. Those will continue," the official said.
"We have had very intense consultations with every key player in the Asia Pacific region. I think one of the messages that we seek to carry on this trip is that it is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues, and that, in fact, all of these complex territorial matters have existed for decades. They have been managed generally effectively for decades, and during this period we've seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo will meet President Barack Obama today to renew the friendship between the two countries, and ask for help in fighting Honduras's drug war. The meeting comes two years after the Obama administration sided against the process that brought Lobo to power, before reversing itself and embracing the Lobo presidency.
Lobo sat down for an interview with The Cable on Tuesday to talk about his country's 2009 political crisis, the role of the United States in that drama, and the need for strong ties between Washington and Tegucigalpa, which he described as two like-minded democracies fighting together against drugs and for democracy.
"The United States is our most important foreign ally, it's our strongest relationship and it has been so historically," Lobo said. "That's the way it is and I'm sure it will continue to be so."
Back in 2009, the State Department sided strongly with former President Manuel Zelaya, who was seized by the military and taken out of Honduras in what some called a coup. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras in September 2009 and holed up in the Brazilian embassy while the Obama administration worked to restore him to power.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even met with Zelaya in Washington, suspended aid to Honduras, and revoked the visas of Honduran officials. Later, Honduras was cut off from Millennium Challenge Corporation assistance.
Eventually, it became apparent that the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa, led by Roberto Micheletti, was winning the internal struggle and that new elections would take place. The administration began shifting its position in October 2009 and finally threw Zelaya under the bus when Lobo won the election and Zelaya rejected a deal that would have returned him temporarily to power.
Zelaya hurt his case and alienated the Obama administration when he starting accusing "Israeli mercenaries" of poisoning him with mind-altering gas and radiation while he was inside the Brazilian embassy.
But that's all water under the bridge as far as Lobo is concerned.
"The Unites States has always supported democracy and the rule of law. Whether it is Zelaya, whether it is Lobo, this is what the United States has always looked for," Lobo said. "They always said that as soon as there are elections and the Hondurans elect the president, the situation with Honduras would be the same as it had always been, and this is the way it happened."
Most U.S. trade and assistance to Honduras has been restored, although they are still not able to receive grants from the MCC.
We asked Lobo if he forgave the Obama administration for sticking with Zelaya for so long and initially opposing the process that led to his election.
"They haven't done anything to us!" Lobo exclaimed. "The United States was the only country that maintained an ambassador in Honduras and was extremely helpful in eventually finding a path out of the crisis."
Lobo is meeting with a host of senior officials in addition to Obama, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Attorney General Eric Holder. He'll also hold meetings with leaders at the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Dialogue.
His main goal is to seek financial and technical assistance for Honduras's worsening problem with drug cartels, which have increasingly moved into Central America due to the crackdown in Mexico.
"[W]e need to have help to do more investigations and we need to seek reforms in the national police as well as in the armed forces," Lobo said. "We have a strong ally in the U.S. because this is the market, this is where the consumers are. We are basically on the corridor and this we cannot change. We also seek the United States to launch an effective fight against consumption."
On Tuesday morning, Lobo had breakfast with Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-DL). DeMint was key in shifting U.S. policy away from Zelaya and traveled to Honduras in the middle of the crisis, against the State Department's objections, to meet with Zelaya's foes.
DeMint told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday that the Lobo government had made progress in repairing its relationships around the world but that more attention from the United States was needed.
"If we focus on Mexico and Columbia, the criminals move to places like Honduras," DeMint said. "They are a good friend and they are very pro-American and there aren't many pro-American countries left in the world."
If there's one thing the Chinese Communist Party really gets annoyed about, it's when someone confuses them with the government of Taiwan! And that's exactly what the State Department did during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Asia.
Following Clinton's meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Bali last weekend, the State Department put out a press release that began with this line:
"During their meeting today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republic of China Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reviewed the wide range of common interests between the United States and China and discussed ways to advance our shared goal of maintaining peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region."
The problem is that the "Republic of China" is the official name of Taiwan, and the Beijing-led government is the head of the "People's Republic of China."
The incident brings to mind a 2006 incident during former Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington when, in a ceremony on the White House lawn, the Chinese anthem was introduced as "national anthem of the Republic of China."
Although it was most likely an innocent mistake, we're told by a source on the plane with Clinton that the Chinese delegation went ballistic and complained to Clinton's staff. The State Department sent out a correction soon after and the State Department website now reflects the corrected information.
Russia has threatened the Obama administration that it will end cooperation on Iran and prevent the transfer of material to Afghanistan if Congress passes a law criticizing Russian human rights practices.
The White House argues that the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations has had three positive results: the New START nuclear reductions treaty, Moscow's cooperation in sanctioning Iran, and approval (for a price) for U.S. military goods to transit Russian territory on the way to Afghanistan. But Russia is now using two of those three points as leverage to pressure the administration to get Congress not to pass a bill that would ban visas for Russian officials implicated in human rights crimes.
The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
The administration admitted the Russian threats in its official comments on the bill, obtained by the The Cable.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the document stated. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."
The Washington Post first reported the existence of the administration's comments today and led with the news that the State Department has quietly put Russian officials connected with the Magnitsky killing on a visa blacklist.
The blacklist appears to be a way for the administration to preempt further legislation. "Secretary Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergey Magnitskiy from traveling to the United States. The Administration, therefore, does not see the need for this additional legislation," the administration said in its comments.
But in fact, the current bill no longer just includes officials connected to the Magnitsky case. The Senate version of the bill includes officials connected to a range of human rights cases in Russia, including the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an imprisoned Russian dissident.
The main sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), said in an interview today with The Cable that he was now working to address the administration's concerns and he was not sure when the bill would see a committee markup or floor consideration.
"I'm working with the administration, working with the committee, and working with my fellow senators to determine how to proceed," he said. "Two things can change strategy: One is what happens in Russia, one is what happens in the State Department. Both are fluid at this point."
Meanwhile, the administration has another problem with the reset -- it must find a way to get Congress to repeal the 1974 "Jackson-Vanik" law, which was imposed to penalize the Soviet Union for its treatment of Jewish emigrants. That law stands in the way of designating Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which is part of Moscow's bid to join the WTO.
NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Moscow, told The New Republic last month that he was open to the idea of some new law to pressure Russia on human rights as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik.
"Jackson-Vanik is an outdated mechanism," he said. "Let's have an updated mechanism that is more appropriate for 2011."
It's extremely doubtful that the GOP-led House would grant Russia PNTR status no matter what, meaning that the Magnitsky Act's value as a bargaining chip may be minimal. Either way, it's clear that the Obama administration places great value on maintaining the gains of the reset and doesn't want anything to get in the way.
"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in May."It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States."
MANAMA, Bahrain – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ate dinner on Friday only five seats away from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. And although Clinton and Mottaki didn’t speak to each other, or even shake hands, Clinton’s speech had a distinctly warmer tone toward Tehran -- only three days before the next meeting between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.
Addressing the Iranian delegation directly during her opening address to the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, Clinton said, “In Geneva next week, the P5+1 will meet with representatives from your nation, the first such meeting since October of 2009. We hope that out of this meeting, entered into in good faith, we will see a constructive engagement with respect to your nuclear program. Nearly 2 years ago, President Obama extended to your government a sincere offer of dialogue. We are still committed to this dialogue.”
Clinton then spoke about Iran’s right to have a peaceful nuclear program, focusing on the possible end state if negotiations go well -- rather than harping on the international community’s long list of complaints regarding Iranian behavior.
“The position of the international community is clear. You have the right to a peaceful nuclear program, but with that right comes a reasonable responsibility, that you follow the treaty you signed and fully address the international community’s concerns about your nuclear activity,” she said. “We urge you to make that choice … we urge you to restore the confidence of the international community and live up to your international obligations.”
Clinton went on to praise Iran as the home of one of the world’s greatest civilizations, while noting that the latest IAEA report showed that Iran has not yet made clear it intends to pursue a peaceful resolution to the controversy over its nuclear program.
“We continue to make this offer of engagement with respect for your sovereignty and with regard for your interests, but also with an iron clad commitment to defending global security and the world’s interest in a peaceful and prosperous Gulf region,” she said.
When asked at the conference what Clinton expected to come out of next week’s talks in Geneva, Clinton said, “I believe that is largely in the hands of the Iranians.”
In an interview Wednesday with the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, Clinton said that Iran was entitled to enrich its own uranium, after it had satisfied international concerns.
"We've told them that they are entitled to the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, but they haven't yet restored the confidence of the international community to the extent where the international community would feel comfortable allowing them to enrich," Clinton told the BBC. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations."
Experts in the audience said that Clinton’s remarks about Iran’s right to enrich uranium didn’t mark a change in policy, but noted that her focus on Iran’s sovereign rights and mention of enrichment did mark a new tone ahead of the negotiations in Geneva.
“This has been policy since at least 2008, when the P5+1 put a package proposal to Iran that asked for a suspension of enrichment until Iran restored confidence,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the IISS non-proliferation and disarmament program. “She wasn’t breaking any new ground in terms of the position, but in tone is was totally positive, setting the right mood music for the Geneva talks beginning Monday.”
Mottaki was seated next to, and seemed to get along famously with, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
MANAMA, Bahrain—Doha, Qatar, was full of life Thursday night, with men in white robes dancing in the streets, hanging out of car windows, blowing Vuvuzela horns, and participating in all sorts of other non-alcoholic celebrations of Qatar's victory in securing the 2022 World Cup.
Your humble Cable guy landed in Doha Thursday evening on his way to the IISS 2010 Manama Security dialogue, which began Friday in Bahrain. But before going to bed late Thursday night, we had the chance to party along with the locals, eat some baby camel (true story), and tour a city filled with posters and other advertisements for Qatar's expensive bid to host the tournament.
Of course, the United States was among the finalists for the hosting honors. So when The Cable sat down Friday for an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we couldn't help but ask what she thought of Qatar's selection.
Clinton said that the selection of Qatar for 2022, Russia for 2018, and the earlier selection of Brazil for 2014 represent an effort by FIFA, the world soccer body, to spread the honor to new regions and reward new audiences.
"It does make a certain logic, to kind of expand the global reach and give people who love football more than we do -- soccer football, not football football -- a chance to have their moment," she said.
Clinton did admit to being at least a little unhappy about the decision, and gently alluded to the fact that Qatar is a long way from building all of the stadiums needed for the tournament, not to mention protecting fans from the blistering summer Doha heat.
"Obviously we were disappointed because, look, we could do it tomorrow. We've got the facilities already built," she said. "We don't have to air-condition stadiums."
Photo by Sandy Choi
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departed Wednesday morning on her sixth trip to Asia, where she will visit seven countries over 13 days and meet with scores of officials and other regional actors. The highlights of the trip will be Clinton's participation in the East Asia Summit in Hanoi and a meeting with her Chinese Foreign Ministry counterpart on Hainan Island, made infamous by the April 2001 diplomatic tussle over the crash landing of a U.S. surveillance plane.
"It's a very complicated and, frankly, lengthy trip," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters Tuesday. "At every stop, the Secretary will highlight both political and economic interactions, a desire to promote U.S. exports and see a more forward engagement on economic matters."
Wednesday morning, Clinton departed Washington and headed to Hawaii, where she will first meet with military officials including Pacific Fleet Chief of Staff Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh and Adm. Robert Willard, the head of Pacific Command. Following that she will have what Campbell called a "substantial, intense interaction" with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara that will cover "all aspects of our bilateral relationship."
Thursday, Clinton will give a "major address" on U.S. strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region at the East West Center. In addition to setting the stage for Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington (we're hearing January), the G-20 meetings next month in Seoul, and the APEC meeting next year in Japan, Clinton's speech will explain that "at the economic level, 2011 is emerging as a very consequential, in many respects make-or-break, year for the United States," Campbell said. Following that, Clinton will stop in Guam to visit U.S. troops.
On Friday Oct. 29, Clinton goes to Hanoi, where the United States is joining for the first time the East Asia Summit, with an eye toward membership in the near future. On Saturday, she will make a presentation there as "a guest of the chair." There are several bilateral meetings planned, including a conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. She will also participate in the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting and meet with Indian and Russian interlocutors, Campbell said.
Sometime during her stay in Vietnam, Clinton will take a quick trip to Hainan Island, China, to meet with State Counselor Dai Bingguo. "At that session, we will review the various issues in the U.S.-China relationship, make sure that we're making adequate preparations for both the upcoming G-20 meeting, APEC, and particularly for the session that will take place in January when Hu Jintao will visit the United States, or in early part of 2011," Campbell said.
On Saturday Oct. 30, she moves on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. She will visit Angkor Wat on Sunday and meet King Norodom Simahoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Monday. Clinton will then head to Malaysia on to meet with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet. "I think you will see the flourishing U.S.-Malaysian relationship on full display," Campbell predicted. This will be Clinton's first visit to both countries as secretary of state.
On Wednesday, Nov. 3, the team goes Papua New Guinea to meet Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and other senior government officials, women leaders, and environmental experts. The next stop is New Zealand, where Clinton will meet with senior government officials, including Prime Minister John Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCull. There the two sides will announce the so-called Wellington Declaration, "which will underscore our desire to see U.S.-New Zealand relations return to a significance in terms of coordination on a range of issues," said Campbell.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, Clinton will travel to Australia to join Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, and Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith in Melbourne for the 25th anniversary of the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) to discuss regional and global security issues. Secretary Clinton will also meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
She returns to Washington Monday, Nov. 8, with a final stop in American Samoa.
"We often talk about stepping up our game in the Asian Pacific region. In that formulation, the A gets a lot more attention than the P, the Pacific. You will note on this particular trip that the Secretary will be stopping in three Pacific islands," Campbell said. "This will be the longest trip of her tenure to date."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added a new stop to her whirlwind tour of Asia that begins tomorrow, agreeing to travel to China for a meeting with State Counselor Dai Bingguo. Rather than meet in Hanoi, where both U.S. and Chinese delegations will be present for the East Asia Summit, the meeting will take place on Hainan Island -- a location fraught with political meaning for the two countries.
In April 2001, Hainan Island captured the attention of Washington when a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and crash landed there. The Chinese detained the 24 crew members for 11 days until the Bush administration delivered what became known as the "Letter of the two sorries." Your humble Cable guy was an intern at the House International Relations Committee at the time and remembers well the tension and angst in Washington regarding the Chinese government's behavior during the incident, which constituted President George W. Bush's first real foreign policy crisis.
Fast forward to this week, when Clinton will land on the island (hopefully safely) at Chinese behest, during a less panicked but arguably more complicated juncture in the U.S.-China relationship. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters Tuesday that the meeting is part of the effort to increase high-level interactions at the top of the U.S.-China relationship, though he downplayed the significance of the location.
"I think State Counselor Dai had contemplated a trip to Vietnam, and then for a variety of scheduling purposes, the Chinese side thought it would make more sense for a quick visit to Hainan," he said. "I think it's nothing out of the ordinary. It's in many respects just a convenience for Chinese friends in particular."
But he also acknowledged that there is a lot of work to do on both sides to bring the U.S.-China relationship back to a point where President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao can have a successful meeting in Washington early next year.
"We are seriously engaged in high-level diplomacy to ensure that this trip and the preparations in advance for it go smoothly," Campbell said.
The location of high-level meetings is not insignificant. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his Chinese counterpart this month on neutral ground in Hanoi after months of cool military to military relations, which began after the Chinese rejected Gates' offer to visit China. Hanoi is also the location where Clinton laid out the administration's view on the South China Sea dispute in a speech that shocked and upset the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, a lot of reporting in Washington this week has suggested that the Obama administration's new strategy is to build up alliances in Asia while "stiffening its approach toward Beijing." Administration officials tell us that this "stiffening" started as early as last May after the Gates snub and alliance-building has been taking place since the beginning of the administration. But only just now is it showing dividends in public, as was seen during Clinton's last visit to Hanoi, where several other nations stood up to support her remarks.
Campbell explains the balance of the two efforts this way:
"The United States wants very much a strong, productive relationship with China. We're seeking to intensify our dialogue on a range of issues," he said. "We're also working closely with a number of states in the Asian-Pacific region, most prominently to underscore the U.S. strong commitment to remain an active, engaged, diplomatic, political, security and economic player in the Asian-Pacific region going forward at this time."
Campbell also dismissed a Washington Times report that said the administration's China team is divided into two groups: the "kowtow group" that seeks to placate Beijing and the "sad and disappointed" group that is arguing for a tougher tone.
"I think that the discussion of this kind of division is wrong, is incorrect. And myself as a person, I think of myself as quite optimistic, generally," Campbell said.
AFP / Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrates her 63rd birthday today. State Department employees, fans, and a few journalists had a chance to sing Happy Birthday to Madam Secretary at last night's screening of Inside the State Department, the new National Geographic documentary about her life "inside the bubble."
Clinton graciously tolerated the crowd's rendition of the Happy Birthday song and the National Geographic people even made her a cake with the Department of of State's official seal on it (pictured above). Clinton will spend the bulk of her special day in New York, giving a speech about the role of women in politics at the U.N. Security Council, but we're told she already took time to celebrate with her family last weekend while traveling in California.
As for the documentary, it provides previously unseen insights into the workings of the massive operation needed to support Clinton on her overseas trips. Starting with Clinton's visit to last year's U.N. General Assembly, the film also follows her to Pakistan and then around the Middle East as she conducted some intensive shuttle diplomacy ahead of the start of peace talks earlier this year.
"This is truly a tribute to the more than 60,000 people who work for the State Department around the world. Now, not all of them could fit into the movie, but without their service standing behind all the faces that you will see and the people that you'll meet, there are literally hundreds and thousands more who do every day what is necessary to protect America, to promote our values, advance our interests in every corner of the globe," she said during her introductory remarks.
The video included several cameos by key staff, including senior advisors Philippe Reines, Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin, and others. The New York Times' Mark Landler and the AP's Matt Lee were also featured in interviews.
Writer/director Steve Hoggard was surprised how accessible and down to earth Clinton was when traveling. "One thing that would surprise me is when she would come to the back of the plane without her makeup, without her hair done.... You can't help but like her," he said.
The movie will air Nov. 8 at 9 PM on the National Geographic channel. Here's a preview clip:
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
Several foreign ambassadors were shocked Tuesday night when they arrived at the White House for the annual "Chiefs of Mission" reception but were denied entry by security staff. Several threw up their hands and went home.
Ambassadors from Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and several other countries were held at the door, while European diplomats from France and Finland were allowed in. This led several ambassadors to speculate that it was an alphabetical problem -- countries with names in the latter half of the alphabet were somehow affected by a registration error. Neither the administration nor the State Department would provide a full list of the countries affected by the SNAFU.
The Cable tracked down what happened. One administration official told us that many of the foreign ambassadors and chargés d'affaires, when supplying their personal information in advance to get access to the White House grounds, used the European style of dates (DD/MM/YY) instead of the American style (MM/DD/YY) that the White House is accustomed to.
So, for example, your humble Cable guy was born on Dec. 31 (yes, New Year's Eve), but if the date was given to the White House as 31/12/19XX (the year is classified), that wouldn't match their official identification and entry to the White House would be denied, the official explained.
But multiple ambassadors who tried to attend the event told a different story.
"That's rubbish. None of the ambassadors had done that," said one ambassador who eventually left after waiting for more than 45 minutes. He said that the State Department called him Wednesday morning to explain that the mistake was the administration's doing, and that the problem had been created when someone entered the date of birth wrong in an Excel spreadsheet.
"The apology they gave to us was that it was a technical fault on their end and they explained that whoever was punching the information in entered the information wrong," this ambassador reported.
He pointed out that the birthday errors were always with the year of birth, not the month and day. Besides, these diplomats visit the White House enough to know how to submit a date of birth.
The State Department was all over the damage control Wednesday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the various assistant secretaries of state for the regional bureaus call up the ambassadors affected to apologize. White House spokesman Ben Chang also issued this apologetic statement:
"At the start of the reception for Chiefs of Mission and Charges d'Affaires (Tuesday afternoon), a few guests were delayed at the entrance to the White House due to an error in processing their personal data. While eventually resolved, we regret that some departed due to the delay and apologize to those inconvenienced."
CNN reported that as many as 30 diplomats were initially denied entry. Omani Ambassador Hunaina Sultan al-Mughairy was the first to leave the premises in frustration, our sources report.
This was the second annual "Chiefs of Mission" reception, following the inaugural event last summer. President Obama started with a speech after which each country's representative took their turn shaking his and First Lady Michelle Obama's hands, conveying whatever message they were able in the few short moments they have his ear.
For those who did make it into event, they said it went very well and were pleased with the experience.
"They always put a lot of effort into it. It was a really nice event," said one ambassador, who had no problems getting through security. "We all appreciate that the White House makes a special effort for us."
But for those who were initially turned away, there is some lingering disappointment.
"It's an example of how a little thing can become a bigger deal," said one ambassador who was denied entry. "Most of the ambassadors took it in stride but some of them really got offended."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that Josh Daniel has begun work as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new director of speechwriting.
Daniel has been working as a senior advocacy officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where he was in charge of writing Bill and Melinda's speeches. He also apparently drove cross country before taking up his new post in Foggy Bottom this week. From 1999 to 2003, he was managing editor at Slate Magazine, where he wrote extensively about the entertainment industry.
He has also worked as managing editor for Microsoft's sidewalk.com, a website devoted to Houston food and arts culture, and as an editor for the Texas Monthly and the Houston Press.
He replaces Lissa Muscatine, who left State in July after 18 months as chief speechwriter. Muscatine had decades of experience working for Clinton, including as her speechwriter when she was First Lady. Muscatine had been managing four, full-time speechwriters and two part-time employees, who also write for other officials.
Daniel's shop is located inside the Policy Planning Staff but maintains its own independence within that structure. This is the model that Bill Woodward, speechwriter for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, initiated when he took speechwriting out of the Public Affairs Bureau.
The Washington Post incorrectly reported that Daniel worked for Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Right Daniel, but wrong Gates!
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.