On the Plane

Asking the Right Questions

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 16 -- With only two or three questions allotted per news conference for reporters traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, deciding who asks the question is a civilized affair. The reporters rotate asking questions, depending who has an interest in the subject matter or country of the day. Then the names of the reporters are relayed to Rice by her aides before the news conference.

But the actual questions are usually group endeavors. There is a distinct tension at the news conferences: Reporters want to generate news, while often Rice and the foreign ministers she is visiting do not want to make diplomatic waves. So the reporters traveling with Rice huddle in a group, discussing the best way to ask a question. A sloppy, broad question will usually result in the same-old boilerplate. A question needs to be sharp, detailed, and especially pointed, forcing her to respond in a way that advances the story. It's like trying to reel in a fish without pulling so tight that the line breaks.

Tuesday morning, Rice's companion at the news conference (transcript) was the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud al-Faisal. He has been foreign minister for more than three decades, back to the days of Henry Kissinger. Including Rice, he has seen 10 secretaries of State come and go, although there are persistent rumors that he may soon be replaced. Despite Rice's precision of language and skill at dodging questions, Saud is quite possibly the diplomatic world's champion at jostling with reporters. He speaks in code that leaves no doubt what he's thinking, but without using words that would make for a dramatic news story.

The reporters agreed the two questions should deal with the crisis in Iraq and Iran's growing regional power. Ali Larjani, Iran's top national security official, had met with King Abdullah the day before Rice's arrival.

Eventually, the reporters agreed to push Saud on whether he approves of President Bush's new plan for Iraq and whether Saudi Arabia would agree to act as a mediator between the United States and Iran. Saudi media had reported Larjani made such a request.

The reporters also added a question about whether a meeting of Persian Gulf foreign ministers, plus those of Egypt and Jordan, arranged by Rice later in Kuwait, is actually an anti-Iran alliance. An oil question was also thrown for good measure, although no one really expected he would say that Saudi Arabia is ready to increase production to put pressure on Iran. There were companion questions for Rice. (Both U.S. and Saudi reporters use their opportunity to ask "one question" to throw two or three questions at each minister, a stretching of the rules that has been perfected by Japanese reporters.)

But Saud, who speaks in a dignified and careful manner, effortlessly batted the questions away with aplomb. Regarding Larjani's reported request, Saud said there is no need for Saudi Arabia to mediate. "Our relations with the United States are longstanding and need no explanation," he said. "Iran is a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, so obviously we hope to avoid any conflict with the Iranians."

The reference to Iran as "a neighbor," without adding that the relations are good, said volumes about the Saudi attitude toward Iran.

Regarding Bush's plan, Saud was distinctly tepid. He said that he supports "the objectives" of the plan -- i.e., an end to violence and a stable government -- but he made no mention of the specific details. Indeed, when questioned on whether he supports the details, Saud shrugged off the question. Reporters knew that Rice, who arrived in Riyadh at 8 p.m. on Monday, had stayed up until 2:30 a.m. in a visit to the king's hunting camp. She then also had morning meetings. But Saud said there was not enough time to discuss the details of a plan that Bush had outlined in a 20-minute speech.

"The details of how to implement those objectives I don't think we can cover in one night of discussions," Saud said. "So we really cannot comment on what the means that will be applied for this."

Reporters understood the code. The oldest diplomatic dodge is to say that there is common agreement on the goals. It's the details that matter. Reporters later regretted not specifically asking about Bush's military build-up, but Saud likely would have given the same answer.

Without irony, Saud noted that in Iraq "it is not through the bullet but the ballot that people should deal with the issues." Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most autocratic nations in the world with limited electoral freedoms -- and despite his call for equality between all the Iraqis regardless of their sectarian affiliation, Saud bars Saudi Shiites from working at the Foreign Ministry.

The oil question he tossed off with boilerplate. Saudi Arabia "takes its responsibility with great seriousness in maintaining a healthy market for the consumers and the producers," Saud said. He ignored the question about the anti-Iranian alliance.

Then, Saud unexpectedly allowed another round of questions. Asked what he would do if Bush's plan does not succeed, Saud skillfully sounded a positive note -- "why speculate on such dire consequences?" -- while offering a devastating description of the situation in Iraq.

"Why not speculate on the positive side that everybody will come together and hopefully move out of the morass that exists in Iraq which serves nobody -- Shiites or Sunnis or Turkmen or Kurds. It serves no one," Saud said. "It serves no neighboring country, no regional power and no international power."

Saud added: "The advantages of a solution and the settlement for Iraq which is an old and historic country with a civilization that goes back thousands of years, I cannot for the life of me conceive that a country like that would commit suicide given the goodwill and the desire of all to help in this."

Meanwhile, if Rice was not trying to make news, she succeeded. The radio reporters had trouble finding sound bites to feed back to the United States. Still, she offered an interesting take on what she called "a challenging time in the Middle East."

"I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is weiji, which means both danger and opportunity," Rice said. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

Rice did not say where she learned this aphorism but oddly enough it was once featured on "The Simpsons," as this excerpt from an episode shows:

Lisa: "Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for 'crisis' as they do for 'opportunity'?"

Homer: "Yes! Cris-atunity."

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  January 16, 2007; 4:46 PM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, January 2007
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