"This pin... so those guys don't shoot us."
posted 12:16 p.m. EDT 8/2/07
Two items for the Middle East trip blog
On the last leg of his trip, Gates went to Abu Dhabi to see the crown prince, and reporters went to a base somewhere in " southwest Asia." But that is all I am allowed to say. The host country fears it could be attacked if the world knows the depth of its relationship with the United States, said Brig. Gen. Larry Wells, commander of the Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.
The accompanying media took a short tour of the facility and in about 30 minutes, the general described how the Air Force supports U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They fly manned and unmanned aircraft to those countries every day, using state of the art technology to help those on the ground know what is happening all around them.
But there is another group of equally important people on base – those in charge of the air conditioning. They not only keep the troops cool, but keep the planes flying. In 120-degree plus heat, gas must be kept inside the hangar, and equipment fails because the weather outside is too hot. The pilots, security officials and general alike were quick to praise them during our visit. Indeed, they said they could not do their missions without the air conditioning.
I didn’t understand how serious they were until the heat stopped me from doing my job. As I went to file this piece on the secretary’s plane, the Internet was down. In just two hours on the base, the system had overheated. We had to wait until someone figured out how to cool it down.
-- Nancy A. Youssef
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's motorcade sped Thursday from Jerusalem to the informal Palestinian capital of Ramallah, negotiating armed checkpoints along the way. Men with armed guns and security vehicles were everywhere--at first, Israeli soldiers and police, then as the motorcade approached Ramallah, Palestinian security men in green uniforms and burgundy berets.
Rice's first stop was to pay a call on Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, who has strong backing from Washington.
As Rice and Fayyad posed for pictures, the Palestinian asked Rice's top Middle East aide, David Welch, why his suit lapel was bristling with pins. Members of diplomatic delegations customarily wear such tags to identify themselves to security agents.
"This one is so these guys don't shoot us," Welch replied, according to a witness. "And this one is so those guys don't shoot us."
-- Warren P. Strobel
Waggling tails, steady noses.
Posted 4:20 p.m. EDT
The two American planes had just arrived to Jeddah and were sitting idly side by side on the tarmac. Both were emblazoned with the words,the United States of America. One was carrying the State Department staff to the region, the other, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, his staff and the accompanying press.
By Monday night, they were both empty. Some of those traveling had been shuttled off to the beautifully lit palace just feet away for a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The rest sat in armored cars on the tarmac, waiting to make a high-speed run for the hotel.
I was among five other journalists in an armored car.
We glanced at each plane, the one with the glistening sky blue streak across it and our less ostentatious military aircraft. Almost simultaneously, and for no good reason, the debate began. Who has the better plane?
“They have executive seats in that plane, which are a lot more comfortable than our seats,” one of my Pentagon colleagues said.
“Yeah, but they had to stop to re-fuel,” replied another. In an astonishing defiance of aerodynamics, the Defense department’s plane refueled in flight. Three planes connected onto to ours one by one, dropping fuel into the nose. I can tell you from first-hand experience that you don’t want to be in the back of the plane when that happens. They keep the front steady to keep the connection; they let the back of the plane rock back and forth.
We boasted to one another that we could get Internet during the flight over. Our colleagues at State could not.
Eating among the sharks. Posted at 9:52 a.m. EDT
Reporters covering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have long marveled-and groaned-at her ability to talk at length without seeming to say a lot, much less "make news."
Chalk it up to Rice's legendary steely self-discipline, and her background in academia.
Rice knows how to make her point with a word or two, but she often quickly retreats to the safe zone of rote talking points.
So, it was instructive this week to see-or more accurately, hear-Rice side by side with the more plainspoken Defense Secretary Robert Gates as they traveled through the Middle East together.
At one point, both were trying to soothe Arab allies who are mortified that President Bush might precipitously withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and leave the Middle East in turmoil.
Rice: "(We are) assuring our friends and allies that the policies and decisions the president is pursuing in Iraq will be policies and decisions that have, at their core, an understanding of the fundamental importance of a stable Iraq to the stability of this region. And that will be very much on his mind, a priority for him…"
Gates: "This is a trip about reassurance."
Rice, who has advised Bush since his first presidential campaign and is fiercely loyal to both him and his agenda, rarely acknowledges there might be legitimate doubts about Bush's foreign policies. On the subject of Iraq, the word "withdrawal" rarely escapes her lips.
Gates was brought aboard last December after the GOP drubbing in the 2006 mid-term elections, and is less beholden to both the man and his policies of the last 6 and half years.
He acknowledged that in Washington, "there are still strong advocates clearly of withdrawal, and some of them withdrawing very quickly."
Maybe it was a none-too-subtle Saudi warning to the Americans that they better come through with those promised new arms sales.
When, Rice and Gates dined late Tuesday night with Saudi King Abdullah in a government palace in the seaport of Jeddah, they were in the company of sharks. Thirty or so of the creatures swam in a vast aquarium lining one wall.
To make the scene even more James Bond-esque, as dinner was served to the U.S. and Saudi delegations, it was feeding time for the sharks, too.
"It was like a scene out of Dr. No'," said one of Rice's entourage.