The Cable

U.S. envoy in angry fight with Turkish ambassador, right outside Clinton meeting

U.S. Ambassador to Doha Joseph LeBaron got into an angry -- and by some accounts physical -- altercation with Turkish Ambassador Fuat Tanlay in Qatar last weekend, when LeBaron tried to cut off the late-running meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

According to two U.S. government officials who were direct eyewitnesses of the incident, LeBaron became frustrated when the Clinton-Erdogan meeting, which had been slated for 20 minutes, ran past an hour. That was making Clinton late for her next meeting with Qatari Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani .

LeBaron, after getting into a yelling match with Tanlay, who wanted to let the leaders go on, banged on the door leading to the hallway down which the meeting was taking place, these officials said. After that, the accounts become murkier, with one official saying that LeBaron was physically restrained and escorted from the area and the other claiming that there was no physical contact and LeBaron left of his own accord.

State Department Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley was an eyewitness and gave his account to The Cable.

"There was a sharp exchange of words, after which the ambassador banged on the door that led to the meeting location," Crowley told The Cable. "I recall that he was pulled away from the door, at which time several of us interceded."

Another U.S. government official in the room at the time, speaking to The Cable on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the bulk of Crowley's account but disputed a couple of points. This official said that there was no physical contact and while LeBaron did bang loudly on the door to get Clinton's attention, that was before his words with Tanlay. Also, he was not pulled away from the door or "restrained in any way," this official said, noting that the LeBaron-Tanlay exchange was in Turkish.

Both Clinton and Turkish officials apologized to the Qatari Amir for the late start of that meeting and the Amir was gracious about it, even unexpectedly attending Clinton's speech to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, Crowley said.

The American accounts conflict with the stories in the Turkish press, which describe a much more violent fight between the two diplomats. In the wake of the incident, Turkish newspapers have been running attacks against LeBaron for days, the official said.

Experts see the incident as both a sign of well-known Turkish sensitivity to matters of protocol but also a symbol of underlying tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship."For Turks, this whole business o f protocol is just as important as substance. This is something the U.S. doesn't seem to understand," said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based Turkey analyst. In one example, a man was prosecuted in Turkey for chewing gum at government ceremony, Jenkins said. (Those charges were later dropped, but still)

The Turks once objected to a foreign official not wearing a necktie at a meeting, Jenkins said. In another incident, the Turkish government was outraged when the United Kingdom didn't provide a police escort at the airport for a visiting Turkish official.

At last year's Davos meeting, Erdogan got into a well-publicized spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Jenkins said that Erdogan was particularly upset that moderator David Ignatius touched his arm during the back and forth, another violation of protocol.

Meanwhile, inside the meeting, the issues being discussed between Clinton and Erdogan were substantial. The U.S. and Turkey are far apart on new sanctions toward Iran and the U.S. needs not only Turkey's vote at the UN Security Council, but Turkey's help in implementing any new sanctions, as well.

"Erdogan genuinely believes the Iranians are not planning to produce a nuclear weapon," Jenkins said. "The problem is he is about the only person in the world that believes that now. The two sides are very far apart on this issue now."

UPDATE: LeBaron sent The Cable this on the record response, which directly contradicts the accounts told by Crowley and in the Turkish press. "The facts portrayed in the article do not reflect what actually transpired; no violence or physical contact occurred, for example. What was important was that Secretary of State Clinton was able to have a series of constructive talks in Doha, meeting with Qatar's head of state, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and with other top officials such as Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. "

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Dalai Lama, Syria, Niger coup, India-Pakistan

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Thursday's briefing by spokesman P.J. Crowley:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama Thursday to express America's support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and welcome the Dalai Lama's report on the ongoing dialogue. Also in the meeting were Undersecretary Maria Otero, who's also the special coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary David Shear. "We have ongoing concerns about human rights conditions among the Tibetan areas of China. At the same time, we consider Tibet to be a part of China," Crowley said.
  • Clinton also met Thursday with President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala,
  • Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew was in Zagreb Thursday for the inauguration of President Ivo Josipovic then went on to Israel where he will have meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Friday and Saturday. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns was in Syria Wednesday and then Turkey Thursday for meetings led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who just got back from Iran.
  • Dan Benjamin, State's coordinator for counterterrorism, also met today with Syrian officials as the leader of a delegation that included David Heyman from the Department of Homeland Security, Maura Connelly from the State's NEA Bureau, and NSC Director Megan McDermott.
  • Special Representative Richard Holbrooke was in Pakistan Thursday and will have meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, Army chief of staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and intelligence chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha. He will travel to the "stans," as well as Georgia and Germany.
  • There was a coup in Niger, but Congressman Alan Grayson, who happened to be there, is safe. "This is a difficult situation. President Tandja has been trying to extend his mandate in office... and obviously that may well have been, you know, an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today," Crowley said, calling for new elections.
  • Regarding recent captures of Taliban leaders, Crowley was guarded. "I don't think anyone's declaring victory at this point," he said, "If this indicates that we have momentum on our side, that there are lots of things to be encouraged by."
  • Lots of support for the Feb 25 planned meeting of Indian and Pakistani Foreign ministers. "We're most pleased with the political courage showed by leaders, on both sides, that notwithstanding the attack which was directly aimed at derailing, you know, this dialogue that there is this political commitment to move forward, you know, with talks," said Crowley, "And we think that's going to be extremely important."

State Department