On the Plane

A New Tool for Middle East Diplomacy

KUWAIT CITY, Jan. 17 -- In diplomacy, victory sometimes results from a salvo of paper.

For four months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has struggled to unite a group of eight Arab countries -- six from the Persian Gulf, along with Egypt and Jordan. The countries are among the strongest allies in the region, but they value their bilateral ties with the United States and aren't happy discussing sensitive regional issues with each other in such a broad multilateral setting.

But Rice and U.S. officials wanted to signal that the nations were joining together as a "mainstream" group (even though many are dictatorships) to thwart "extremists" (i.e., Iran) operating in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Rice convinced the foreign ministers from the eight countries to meet with her at the United Nations in September, in Cairo in October, at the Dead Sea (Jordan's side) in November and finally here on Tuesday, in a vast palace with 40-foot columns and large wooden models of ships. (The Kuwaitis subsisted on pearl-diving before they realized they lived on top of a significant chunk of the world's known oil reserves.) Finally, at this meeting, the eight countries and the United States issued a statement -- 1 1/2 pages of often obtuse diplomatic jargon. Some of the language was akin to expressing support for Mom and apple pie, such as "the participants affirmed that disputes among states should be settled peacefully and in accordance with international norms."

No matter.

U.S. officials knew the State Department press corps would not consider the group real until it had produced a joint statement. Now, Rice could claim that she had created a new tool for diplomacy in the Middle East.

There were various code words in the document that left little doubt that some of the language was aimed at Iran, though the Islamic republic was not mentioned by name. There was also language regarding the Palestinian territories aimed at Hamas and language concerning Lebanon that was targeted at Hezbollah, though neither militant group was mentioned by name.

In a meeting Wednesday morning with the Kuwaiti foreign minister, Muhammad al-Salem al-Sabah, Rice noted that she was pleased the eight nations had issued the statement with the United States. "I think we can help by pressing forward with the group," she said. "It will be useful."

But there is one small problem: the group's unwieldy name of "GCC Plus Two."

The GCC stands for the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was formed in 1981 by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The GCC charter calls for "coordination, integration and inter-connection between Member States in all fields," though that initially meant economic and trade issues. Over time, that coordination had also expanded into the realms of foreign and security policy.

The "Two," of course, are Egypt and Jordan, two longtime U.S. allies that, as Sunni Muslim majority states, are extremely worried about the turmoil spreading through Iraq and the rise of a potential "Shiite arc" led by Iran.

Reporters joked that the group should be renamed the WHI (for "We Hate Iran") or the AIA ("Anti-Iran Alliance"). At separate news conferences, both the Kuwaiti and Saudi foreign ministers studiously ignored an identical question posed by reporters traveling with Rice -- Shouldn't the GCC Plus Two be considered an anti-Iran alliance?

The same sort of algebraic shorthand has been an issue in Rice's efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program.

Three European Union powers -- Britain, France and Germany -- began negotiations with Iran on halting its nuclear activities in 2003. They called themselves the "EU-3." But last year, after the United States began to explicitly support the European effort, Rice organized a series of foreign minister meetings that included the three European nations, plus Russia, China and the United States.

From the European perspective, the United States, Russia and China were now at the table with the "EU-3" discussing Iran, so European officials called the meeting the "EU-3 plus Three."

But that suggested history had started before the Americans arrived.

The Americans preferred to call the group the "P5 plus One" -- a reference to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The Germans -- the "One" without veto status -- were immensely annoyed by this nomenclature.

Another well-known diplomatic grouping is "The Quartet," which is supposed to monitor efforts at achieving peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. This group, made up of the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and the United States, was arranged by the Bush administration in 2002 partly to keep the Europeans from complaining about U.S. policy on the peace process.

Japan, which is a major financial donor in the Palestinian territories, later pleaded to be included. The Japanese suggested it be called "The Quintet," but by then it was too late. (There is also an "Arab Quartet." Rice wants to arrange a meeting between the Arab Quartet and The Quartet, but that's too complicated to explain.)

Diplomatic reporters thrive on writing about high-level meetings. But, even for them, a vague piece of paper issued by a group of nations with a complicated name does not necessarily result in a good news story.

After the conclusion of the news conference (transcript) on the GCC Plus Two meeting, one reporter quipped: "This is the kind of story I wouldn't read if I weren't writing it."

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  January 17, 2007; 6:32 PM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, January 2007
Previous: Asking the Right Questions | Next: Israelis, Palestinians Appear Determined to Get Equal Treatment


Please email us to report offensive comments.

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company