At State, Slow to Articulate the Message
By Glenn Kessler
BANGKOK--Diplomacy is often about the message. Six months into Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's tenure, the State Department sometimes still has trouble getting her message out.
Reporters traveling with Clinton had been led to believe that the highlight of Clinton's last day in India--Monday--would be the signing of an "end-use monitoring" agreement permitting U.S. firms to compete for $10 billion in military aircraft purchases by India.
But no U.S. official attempted to explain what that meant beforehand. In addition, up until a final news conference, there was virtually no information provided on a series of other agreements the two governments had been negotiating for the weeks leading up to Clinton's visit.
So when Clinton and her Indian counterpart signed something else--a technology joint venture to spur research--confusion ensued among reporters. Did the "end-use" deal collapse? Was Clinton playing semantic games by saying the "end-use" deal had been "finalized"? No one seemed to know for sure.
One U.S. official based in New Delhi told reporters said a signature was not necessary for the "end-use" deal to go forward. But a senior official traveling with Clinton emailed several reporters insisting the "end-use" agreement had been signed by Clinton.
Meanwhile, reporters working on tight deadlines had little understanding of the other agreements. A promised fact sheet--and a joint statement issued by the two countries--was not delivered to reporters, despite repeated requests. When a late-night briefing finally began, more than two hours after Clinton's news conference, the U.S. officials doing the briefing were surprised to learn reporters still did not have any of these materials. They hurridly punched at their Blackberries to get the material released.
Eventually, it became clear that the "end-use" agreement did not need to be signed, and that--in the words of one briefer--it was an "incermental" achievement. The signing ceremony was about a minor $30 million project, clearly mostly for the show of cameras than anything substantive.
Lost amid much of the coverage was the news that the United States and India had decided to hold annual, senior-level dialogues on a range of issues, involving top Cabinet officials from both governments. That forum in the long run likely will have a more substantive impact on U.S.-India relations than all the other agreements combined.
Clinton has now arrived in Thailand. On Wednesday, she will be on the resort island of Phuket for a regional security forum. There will be a number of agreements reached and statements issued, so State will have another chance to demonstrate its expertise at getting the message out.
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