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. "
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.