Muammar el-Qaddafi looked like a wax figure. He wore a simple white cotton robe and a black Libyan fez, which covered part of his flowing hair. His robe was accented by a brooch in the shape of Africa and a striking purple and green sash also decorated with African shapes. His black shoes were polished to a high shine. He stood ramrod straight in the corner of a small room located in his heavily guarded compound, still and somber, waiting for his honored guest: Condoleezza Rice.
This was a moment of history, the first time in 55 years that a Secretary of State had traveled to Tripoli, the shabby-looking capital of Libya, and the highest-level U.S. meeting ever with the one-time “mad dog” of the Middle East. The September 2008 visit was the culmination of years of diplomacy, in which Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction and paid billions of dollars to the victims of its terrorist acts. I was there to record it, as one of the small number of reporters who travel around the world on the Secretary’s converted Boeing 757 jet.
The work sounds glamorous—and it sometimes is—but it can also be tedious. There are moments of high drama and important diplomatic breakthroughs, but there are also many hours waiting in dank hallways for officials to emerge from closed-door meetings—only to learn nothing. For the opportunity to glimpse Qaddafi greeting Rice, reporters had spent several hours waiting in the compound—and then the whole event was over in seconds, a mad blur of jockeying cameramen and shouting Libyan officials eager to remove the reporters. (Rice’s aides were trapped behind the reporters and had to climb over the couches to shake hands with Qaddafi.) Yet there is one advantage State Department reporters have over their White House brethren: We’re on the plane.
That key difference gives us intimate, up-close access to the principal. White House reporters, except for a small handful known as a “pool”, travel in a large chartered jet (not Air Force One) and sit for days in giant filing centers, watching even the most mundane events unfold on television monitors. The ten to 13 reporters who travel with the Secretary, by contrast, are always by her side. We may sit in the back of the plane, but during the long flights crisscrossing the globe we can see when she holds staff meetings, we can strategically bump into key staff members near the bathroom to get the latest scoop, and, of course, we get numerous briefings, on and off the record, from the Secretary herself.
The result is that an unusual bond can develop between the traveling press and the Secretary of State, beyond sharing the same meals and suffering through the same bad in-flight movies. Rice was probably the most traveled Secretary of State in history, and we were among the few constants in her busy life: No matter where she popped up in the world, we were there. Once, when the State Department press corps had to head home by commercial flights while she joined a presidential trip in the midst of a long Asian tour, she seemed genuinely surprised (and envious) to hear the reporters were not continuing the trip.
Of course, that “bond” did not mean we would ever cut her any breaks in terms of news coverage. If what she was up to looked like a diplomatic failure, we’d write it was a diplomatic failure, which sometimes led to annoyed looks and strained silences from Rice’s staffers the next time we boarded the plane. To her credit, Rice never seemed to hold a grudge about negative news coverage. After reading a particularly pointed news analysis of mine about her efforts on achieving Middle East peace, she came to the back of the plane and asked me with a sweet smile: “What made you such a cynic this morning?”
ASecretary’s trips sometimes disappear in a blur of hotel conference rooms and motorcade rides to and from the airport. But there are moments when a reporter begins to sense the person behind the façade of a government official spouting the daily talking points. That is one of the most valuable benefits of being “on the plane.”
During Rice’s one and only trip to Sudan, in 2005, she noticed something strange when she settled down in her chair in the imposing presidential palace of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir: She had virtually no staff, not even a translator. Awkward minutes ticked by, with Rice and Bashir unable to speak to each other. Neither realized that Bashir’s secret police had prevented Rice’s staff and reporters from entering the palace. Eventually, the staff got in, but it took tremendous pleading on their part to get the reporters in the room too.
The meeting, over the conflict in Darfur, had not been going well. As we reporters walked in, we overheard Bashir bragging to Rice about the historical significance of his ancestral hometown, including the claim that the town had had a university 2,000 years before Christ. “Amazing”, Rice replied with mock politeness.
Reporters were only supposed to observe, but Rice’s staff had quietly suggested that one of us ask a question. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell gave it a shot: “Mr. President, tell us, why is the violence continuing?” One of the Sudanese officials started shouting, “No, no, no” as Mitchell continued in her most assertive TV voice, “Why should Americans believe your promises [when] your government is still supporting the militias?”
Bashir, with a smile frozen on his face, snapped at the guards in Arabic, “Don’t let her.” Mitchell kept shouting out questions. He then gestured with his arms; “Finished!”, he shouted. The guards pounced, dragging Mitchell away by twisting her arms so roughly that she started getting teary-eyed. Rice was so furious at the behavior of the guards that she made a diplomatic incident out of it, demanding an official apology from the Sudanese government within an hour. She got it.
Sometimes, too, sheer humanity shows through despite the best efforts of the State Department to hide it. One of Rice’s most difficult relationships was with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, something that was apparent simply by watching their body language at joint news conferences. Lavrov clearly had contempt for Rice, but she gave no quarter.
During a visit to Moscow in 2006, we were waiting in a filing center while Rice, Lavrov and other Foreign Ministers finished lunch. CBS’s Charlie Wolfson excitedly called me over to his desk. There had been “pool spray” (camera shots of the ministers) at the beginning of the lunch, but the Russian technicians had failed to turn off the audio link after the cameramen had left the room. So now we were able to hear—and record—a doozy of an argument between Rice and Lavrov over the situation in Iraq. It was an unvarnished debate, with sarcasm and invective tossed back and forth in ways that reporters seldom hear when the cameras are turned on.
This was juicy enough, but we reporters decided to have some fun with our scoop. We were due to be briefed after the lunch by Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, one of Rice’s smoothest aides, and so we decided not to reveal that we had overheard the conversation. When we asked how the lunch went, Burns replied that it was great. We pressed on, asking whether there any been any debate over Iraq. No, he insisted. Not even a little? “There was absolutely no friction whatsoever”, he declared. At that point, I raised my hand and told him that we had listened to the whole thing. Needless to say, the normally unflappable Burns was flabbergasted. Burns was only doing his job; after all, nations rarely want to broadcast their disputes. But one of Rice’s aides told me the next day that President Bush had especially enjoyed my account of the episode in that morning’s Washington Post.
Each Secretary of State brings his or her own style to overseas travel. Powell never liked to brief until just before his plane landed, after he had had time to digest the material provided by his staff. So we might travel for 23 hours and not get a briefing until half an hour before landing (as happened during one trip to Cambodia). Rice, by contrast, liked to brief as soon as the plane took off, giving reporters many hours to craft their stories.
Powell also took a meat-and-potatoes approach to the job: He held his meetings, conducted his news conferences and then headed to the airport. In four years, he only made two brief sightseeing excursions, in both cases almost against his will. Rice, at first, tried to demonstrate some interest in the local culture—for instance by visiting an Indian temple or watching Chinese ice-skaters train. One of Rice’s aides, Jim Wilkinson, even conceived of a unique way to generate positive local press. Rather than have the Secretary be greeted by protocol chiefs or foreign ministers, he arranged for the appearance of a country’s pop culture heroes, especially sports or music stars. Because Rice tended to arrive at night, this also ensured that she would already be on the front page of the morning newspapers when she arrived for meetings with top officials, which in its own way was a form of intimidation. Not every country agreed to this scheme; Middle Eastern countries generally refused to allow it. But it was a hit elsewhere. In Romania, she was welcomed by Olympic legend Nadia Comaneci; in Belgium, by bicyclist Eddy Merckx, who won the Tour de France five times; and in Tokyo, by Konishiki, a sumo champion clad in a black kimono. A photo of the 600-pound wrestler hugging the much smaller Rice even appeared on the front page of the Financial Times.
It’s unclear what approach the new Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will take. This may be a reporter’s dream, but I would love it if she were to follow the technique of Rice’s former deputy, Robert Zoellick (now president of the World Bank). Zoellick, in a departure from precedent, insisted on taking reporters with him when he traveled, but even more unusual, he favored complete transparency. On a flight to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, Zoellick was briefing reporters when I pulled out a news clip with some damning statistics about the failure of public services in the former insurgent stronghold, particularly a lack of fresh drinking water. “That’s funny”, he said, “Those are completely different than the statistics the State Department gave me.” He found a sheet in his briefing book which claimed that 95 percent of the population had access to safe water.
Once we arrived in Fallujah—after a wild helicopter ride skimming the tops of palm trees—Zoellick was supposed to meet alone with the city council. Unexpectedly, however, he invited the band of reporters to listen in. Then he started to prod the town leaders about the city services, citing the State Department stats. A torrent of complaints soon poured out, especially about how none of the water was safe to drink.
The result was a predictable set of stories about how Zoellick got an earful in Fallujah. But the next day, flying out of Iraq, he came back to the reporters to say that he loved the coverage, declaring, “They’re never going to find out what’s right back at State if they don’t read it in the newspaper.”
It is with great sadness that I note the passing on Christmas Eve of Samuel Huntington, long-time teacher, friend and founding editorial board member of The American Interest. Huntington was easily the greatest political scientist of his generation, a wide-ranging thinker whose books became major points of reference within each sub-field he entered: The Soldier and State for civil-military relations; The Common Defense for defense policy; The Clash of Civilizations for international relations; American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony and Who Are We? for American politics; and, of special interest to me, Political Order in Changing Societies and The Third Wave for comparative politics.
First published in 1968, Political Order in Changing Societies was perhaps the last great effort to build a general theory of political development, and it left a profound mark on the entire field. It challenged the reigning theory of modernization, which held that the good things of modernity tended to go together, and that economic development would promote modern politics. Huntington argued instead for the primacy of politics, positing that without political order, neither economic nor social development could proceed successfully. Some years later, in 1985, Huntington argued in The Third Wave that democratization was rooted more in a particular set of cultural values inherited from Western Christianity than in other factors. The Third Wave, he believed, was not a manifestation of a broader cross-cultural modernization process that would eventually encompass all societies—an argument that prefigured perhaps his best-known work, The Clash of Civilizations, which even more emphatically stressed the durability of cultural values and the primacy of religion as shapers of both national political development and international relations.
I disagreed with Sam on many of these issues, but his arguments were always made with erudition and persuasiveness. It was impossible to not take his arguments with the greatest seriousness, the proof of which is the inarguable fact that they provided vocabulary and structure to all subsequent discussions in the fields he chose to work in.
In addition to his written legacy, Sam was a great teacher. He helped to produce an entire generation of students who have reshaped virtually every sub-field of political science. From his earliest writings to his last works, he drew vociferous critics, but that is the mark of a scholar who has important and fundamental things to say. I suspect that we will not see his like for some time to come.
Ban the Bank?
Allan Meltzer’s contribution to “Debating the future of the World Bank” in the January/February 2009 issue (“Close It Down”) trotted out many of the same arguments of his congressional commission that were aired nine years ago.
Meltzer asserts that “there is plenty of capital available for countries that adopt promising development programs.” Has he seen the news recently? Because of the world financial crisis, capital flows to emerging markets ground to a halt in 2008, with some months recording zero activity in bond or equity markets. Even before, access to capital markets by emerging market countries was sporadic and often non-existent. Among the Bank’s 79 middle-income clients, only a dozen were established bond market borrowers before the crisis.
In making the unsubstantiated claim that the Bank’s “own corrupt practices” prevent reform to reduce corruption, Meltzer ignores that the World Bank was the first International Financial Institution to raise the issue in 1996 when then-President James Wolfensohn spoke about the “cancer of corruption.”
Under President Robert Zoellick, the World Bank Group is mainstreaming anti-corruption and good governance practices across the institution to ensure that every development dollar reaches those in need. The Bank has blocked several hundreds of millions of dollars in loans because of corrupt practices and pulled out of investing in one major project involving individuals who the bank found associated with corruption. We’ve implemented 16 of the 18 recommendations in the Volker Commission review of the Bank’s Institutional Integrity unit, and Volker recently praised the Bank’s efforts to fight corruption.
Meltzer says development efforts have failed to reduce poverty. In fact, new statistics show that in 1980 one in two people on earth were poor, while today one in four are poor. Much work obviously remains, but development efforts have contributed to this progress. Mr. Meltzer cites development economist Paul Collier’s critique of aid to Chad, but neglects to note Professor Collier’s view that aid “speed[s] up the growth process. . . . Without aid, cumulatively the countries of the bottom billion would have become much poorer than they are today.” Meltzer ignores the vital role the Bank plays to help secure fragile states, promote private sector development, craft innovative finance solutions, fight climate change and promote sustainable development.
Overcoming poverty isn’t easy. We are open to listening and learning from informed critics.
senior vice president, external affairs
The World Bank Group
Allan Meltzer responds: I am pleased that some at the World Bank read my comments on the Bank. I cannot fathom, however, why Vice President Muasher thinks it is wrong to remain consistent with the criticisms made by the Meltzer Commission.
Muasher’s most outrageous comment is the suggestion that the large reduction in poverty resulted from the Bank’s policies. The opposite is nearer the truth. Both India and China opened their markets and expanded the role of private ownership. If the Bank would lend only to countries that expanded the role of freer markets, it would be more effective. But, then, private lending would supplant or greatly supplement the Bank.
Why can’t the Bank learn that capitalism works and socialism fails?