On the Plane

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.

By Washington Post Editor |  July 21, 2009; 9:27 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Asia, July 2009
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Wow, HRC is really botching the State gig. What a shame. This Administration brought us high hopes that dimplomacy would get a boost. I doubt she'll make it to Year 3 of the administration.

Posted by: cntervillecitoyen | July 21, 2009 12:32 PM


My friend, the confusion is much more about the way things are done in India, rather than a reflection on Secretary Clinton. In India, it ain't over till it's over and predicting the next day or next week is never easy. Indians are used to this. If Americans are doing business (or diplomacy) in India, they need to understand how to deal with this ambiguity. And so do American reporters :).

I am a US citizen visiting Delhi on business this month and I believe the Clinton visit accomplished a lot. India is messy, let's get used to that. But the dance of the two largest democracies in the world is playing much better than it has in decades. Let's not lose sight of that bigger message.

Gunjan Bagla
Author " Doing Business in 21st Century India"

Posted by: Gunjan Bagla | July 21, 2009 12:46 PM

Why the surprise? A retired career ambassador, I can assure everyone that most overseas signings rarely are more than political photo opportunities.

Posted by: E. Raleigh Pimperton III | July 21, 2009 4:29 PM

Isn't Phuket where Bill Clinton goes for "social recreation?" He and/or the Secretary may be in for a surprise.

Posted by: Randall Harrington | July 21, 2009 4:35 PM

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