On the Plane

Peppering Rice With Questions on Mideast Peace

I am writing this as we are flying from Moscow to Jerusalem, a roughly four-hour flight. There will be a small change in time zones (two hours) and a big change in subject matter, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice switches from the nuances of missile defense and arms control to the perhaps even more convoluted details of the Middle East peace process. Rice is coming to the region for an unusually lengthy period of time for her--four days--hoping to see if she can nudge the Palestinians and Israelis to some kind of preliminary agreement that would make it possible for President Bush to host a peace conference next month in Annapolis.

As she usually does on such trips, Rice came back to talk to the traveling beat reporters for about 20 minutes. We clustered around her with tape recorders, peppering her with questions, mostly about the Middle East. She committed no major news, saying she was coming to listen and get a first-hand report from such key players as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trying to dampen expectations, she said she does not expect any breakthroughs this week.

She refused to address the latest report about the mysterious Israeli raid into Syria last month -- a New York Times story that the target was a partly built nuclear reactor, at some undetermined state of development. She even refused to say why she was refusing to comment, a sign perhaps of how anxious the administration is to keep the incident from blowing up the nascent new peace initiative. She did explain that the small pin she was wearing was not an olive branch but a rendition of the leaf that the dove brought back to Noah's Ark in the Bible as a sign of land.

While there was no news this Sunday morning, one reason Rice does these talks is to give the beat reporters, especially the wire reporters, material for their "set-up" pieces giving an overview of what she is up to for the next four days. This is going to be a difficult trip to cover since the real action is going to be behind closed doors, and it's almost certain that Rice and her aides won't want to tip their hand to how close the two sides are to some kind of document that would lay out the course of future negotiations (the goal of this round of diplomacy.) Thus, it will likely be very hard to gauge how successful she's been until long after we return to Washington.

Since this is an "On the Plane" blog, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the set-up and the personnel on Rice's plane. The experience for the traveling press is quite a bit different than for those traveling with President Bush on Air Force One, where reporters are kept sequestered from the president and his staff. Here, we are all in one big cabin, and we can even spot Rice from time to time when she emerges from her private cabin (which has a bed, a desk and communications equipment so the secretary can conduct business from the plane) to chat with her staff. There is, however, what some reporters describe as a "line of death," next to the bathrooms in the middle of the cabin, dividing the senior staff from the reporters and beyond which journalists may not venture.

The atmosphere is businesslike but relaxed: As Rice was briefing this morning, some of the staff held up a sign for Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, notifying him that his beloved Boston Red Sox went down in Game 2 of the AL Championship series to the Cleveland Indians.

McCormack, who previously served as Rice's spokesman at the White House when she was national security adviser, is one of a number of State Department officials who regularly travel with Rice on her foreign travel. The others include:

* Carol Perez, who is the executive director of the secretary's bureau, a job that means -- among other things -- that she handles the logistics involved with the secretary's plane and travel.
* Steve Beecroft, her executive assistant, who handles the traffic of paperwork to and from Rice and functions as gatekeeper.
* Liz Lineberry, her personal assistant and all-purpose aide. (She's done this job for previous secretaries.)
* Lt. Gen. William Fraser, who serves as the secretary's military adviser on her trips.
* Brian Besanceney, her deputy chief of staff for planning who handles, among other things, Rice's schedule on the trip.

Not on the plane is David Welch, the department's top Middle East expert, who will meet up with the entourage in Jerusalem, where he's been doing his own diplomacy in advance of Rice's mission.

It's interesting that a number of Rice's closest aides, including Perez, Beecroft, Lineberry and McCormack are Foreign Service officers, as are many of the senior line officials in the department, such as Welch and some other key assistant secretaries. That could be read either as a sign of a belief in the competence of professional diplomats or more grist for the neoconservative line that Rice has been captured by the "accommodationists" at Foggy Bottom.

-- Michael Abramowitz

In Sunday's Post: Rice Avoids Criticizing Putin as U.S. Seeks Russia's Cooperation

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  October 14, 2007; 9:52 AM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Russia and Middle East, October 2007
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This is great for many of us who care about our nation and its place as the world's leader for representative government. Sec. Condi is using the Velvet Glove policy, tough when she needs to be yet feminine.

The Democrats complain about the lack of diplomacy in the Bush Adm. Excuse me, but they must be ignoring the news reports from the past 2 years in how Sec. Condi Rice has become very effective in bringing various foreign miniters together to discuss issues which effect our relationships and those with others in the world.

I look forward to a report from the plane for the next 4 days. Thanks for this blog to keep us informed.

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