On the Plane

Shannon, Ireland -- the Traditional Rest Stop

SHANNON, Ireland, Jan. 13--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trips to the Middle East must always start here.

Her specially-fitted Boeing 757 jet, complete with a large office that includes a desk and a fold-out bed, does not have extended-range engines or the fuel capacity to make it all the way to Tel Aviv or to Arab capitals in a single flight.

So, continuing a tradition that began when the State Department entered the jet age, her plane makes a refueling stop here, allowing her staff and reporters to stretch their legs, buy cheap booze, cigars and perfume at the duty-free shop and quaff Irish coffees or Guinness beers at the bar. The Shannon airport proudly notes that it is the birthplace of the Irish coffee, that magical elixir of potent coffee, Irish whiskey and whipped cream.

Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, often joined the staff and reporters at the bar for one or two Irish coffees. (In what may be an apocryphal story, another Secretary of State was reported to ask for his Irish coffee decaf--without the whiskey.)

Shannon is a frequent stopping point for soldiers headed to and from Iraq, and Rice posed for photos with the troops on her maiden voyage as Secretary of State two years ago. But since then Rice has generally stayed in her cabin, asleep or catching up on her work.

This is Rice's 12th trip to the Middle East since she became Secretary of State two years ago, and the anticipation is high. She is coming to the region two days after President Bush unveiled a new strategy for Iraq--and one day after the plan was roasted on Capitol Hill.

Her aides have hinted that she is prepared to launch a new effort to rekindle the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The growing power of Iran also is seen as a looming threat to many of the United States' closest allies. But Rice is venturing back in the Middle East when most analysts believe the prospects for any kind of breakthrough is dim.

David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, even suggested Rice was inspired by the daunting odds.

Because expectations of "Rice's trips to the Middle East usually plunge lower than the Dead Sea, she seems to feel that she can quietly gauge receptivity to new approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian situation without setting off headlines," Makovsky wrote on Bitterlemons-international.org, a Web site devoted to the conflict.

Still, Rice is bringing along a planeload of reporters--16. There are representatives of eight newspapers, a three-person network pool crew and TV correspondent, two radio reporters and two wire-service reporters. (There were supposed to be three wire reporters, but one did not make it at the last minute.)

The reporters sit in the back, mostly in cramped coach seats, behind the business-class seats of Rice's staff and security agents. Before departure, the reporters pick numbers out of a cup to determine who gets the handful of prized business-class seats.

On almost every leg of the trip, Rice wanders back to the plane and briefs the reporters for about a half hour. She usually does this immediately after take-off, giving reporters time to shape their stories (Powell would usually wait until the plane was about to land, after he had been briefed by his staff.) It is difficult to hear over the engine noise of the jet, so Rice stands in the aisle, holding a microphone so her words can be broadcast over a pair of portable speakers.

Rice emphasized that she was not coming with a proposal or a plan to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but planned to have long meetings and to seek ideas and advice. She pitched the trip as part of "process," but one that had picked up pace since the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer. In the Middle East, "If you don't lay the groundwork very well, then it not going to succeed," she said. "And no plan can be made in America."

She said she sensed there were "openings" for progress but she refused to tip her hand on any of her thinking.

Rice sometimes has an obtuse style of speaking, especially when she wants to disguise her thinking, so reporters are forced to dig for scraps of information amid her verbiage. "I think we have laid a lot of groundwork, really over six years," Rice said. "But I feel that I have personally laid a lot of groundwork over the last 18 months or so. Perhaps it is now time to start harvesting some of that groundwork."

But Iraq--and the shellacking Rice received from senators at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday--is also on the mind of reporters.

Neil King Jr. of the Wall Street Journal asked her bluntly whether her effectiveness as a diplomat was harmed by the impression that the president's new plan was so widely disliked back home.

Rice claimed to be unperturbed. "I heard skepticism but I didn't hear alternatives that one could really pursue," she said. "No, I don't feel our hand is weakened."

Reporters have learned that they sometimes get a better answer if they ask a follow-up from Rice, especially if she seemed to sidestep their question. King tried again.

"Are you concerned about the ebbing support in the Congress or for that matter among the American people . . . or is there a kind of vindication in going it alone?" "What will convince the American people that there is going to be a good outcome here is changes on the ground," Rice said. "No poll is going to change until there is something to show on the ground."

In what may some may consider a provocative statement, Rice added that a lot had been achieved: "It is not as if the Iraq war has led to nothing good; it has led to a lot of good," she said.

At another point, Rice seemed to pull back on President Bush's suggestion that the administration's patience in Iraq was not unlimited. She said there was sometimes the notion that "you are just going to pull the plug on Iraq." But that was wrong, she said. "That why I emphasize that this something that is going to evolve over a period of time and there is time to make adjustment as the plan unfolds."

Bingo. Rice seemed to make some news--the administration was determined to stick it out. As she wandered back to her cabin, reporters pulled out their laptops and began to furiously type their stories.

When we landed in Jerusalem, her "pull the plug" comment led the wire stories. But then reporters began to receive anxious calls on their cell phones from editors who were reading the transcript, where it appeared Rice was saying, "Well, we're kind of pulling the plug on Iraq."

Her comment was a bit garbled because at the moment she spoke, a cabinet was opened, breaking her train of thought.

"That was the plug being pulled, yeah," Rice joked. To the reporters traveling with Rice, the context of her comment was clear: She was firm about staying in Iraq. The editors were told to stop reading the transcripts.

The State Department quickly reissued the transcript, making Rice's "plug" comment clearer.

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  January 13, 2007; 11:44 AM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, January 2007
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