Sean McCormack: Away From the Podium

Posted by Sean McCormack
July 24, 2008
Six-Party Talks at ASEAN Regional Forum

More on Secretary Rice's Travel to the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific
Behind the Scenes: Secretary Rice Attending ASEAN Meeting in SingaporeAbout the Author: Sean McCormack serves as Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

OK, a day of diplomacy in the books. After a non-stop series of bilats (diplo-speak for "bilaterals," meaning meetings between the foreign ministers and staffs of two countries) listed in my earlier post, we moved on to the world of multilateral diplomacy. First up, a meeting between selected foreign ministers from ASEAN countries and Secretary Rice. The cameras and journalists were ushered out after Foreign Minister Yeo of Singapore (our host) and Secretary Rice made opening remarks. Each of the other ministers in turn then had an opportunity to make remarks, which varied according to each country's relationship with the United States. (Singapore, the Philippines, Burma, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand participated in the meeting.)

Next up was the informal meeting among foreign ministers of the Six-Party talks, which was organized by the Chinese government who chairs the meetings of the six parties. While this was billed as an informal gathering of the foreign ministers, this would be the first time Secretary Rice would have met her North Korean counterpart so media interest was intense. All the ministers gathered in a room down the hall from the actual meeting room prior to the start of the meeting. The North Korean foreign minister arrived last and was greeted outside the door by the Chinese foreign minister. Secretary Rice then greeted the North Korean minister and shook his hand and he went on to greet the other three ministers in the room. The six then started down the hallway six abreast and did a little choreography along the way to set who would be next to whom upon entering the meeting room.

Now, this is the point where most of you see the ministers (or main meeting participants) enter the room, and they are trailed by numerous, nameless others who are recognized only by close family and friends as they flicker across endless cable TV loops of the moment. This meeting was no different, and because there were six ministers entering at the same time, they were followed by entourages suitable for a heavyweight boxing championship bout. "Who are all those people?" you might ask. Some are security, some are advance people, some are experts accompanying the ministers, and some are folks who in small but critical ways keep the wheels turning for their minister.

After navigating the phalanx of cameras and journalists lining the entrance, the ministers walked up to a small riser, where they stood for pictures and then took their seats. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang made some opening remarks for the cameras. Once he was done, we were all shooed out (save for the ministers and one expert per country) to hover outside the closed meeting room doors. I usually have a seat at these meetings, but the Chinese hosts whittled down participation to just the Secretary and two Six-Party U.S. negotiators. It came down to me or one of our key negotiators. As I am not integral to the negotiation process, which requires too much time in Pyongyang (been there, done that), I came up with plan "B." I would quietly take one of the many seats that typically line the walls of a meeting like this as the pile of journalists, advance types, and security details exited the room. However, I had been outdone by my hoped for but not to be hosts; they had removed all chairs except for those marked for negotiators manifested for the meeting. Each chair was filled, which would have left me standing awkwardly on the sidelines. I considered the possibility, but the hosts had also matched exactly the number of headsets to hear interpretation with the number of seats. I had been completely outflanked, and I knew it. So, I exited with the dwindling number of journalists, camera and sound men, advance types, and security details. Thus, the crowd (minus journalists who had left to file stories) hovered, mingled, checked blackberries (don't have my iPhone yet), and spoke into microphones clipped to sleeve cuffs outside the meeting room doors.

The meeting broke about an hour and twenty minutes later, and the U.S. delegation wound its way back to our floor via various service hallways. I had arranged for the Secretary to speak with the journalists traveling with us so that her comments would make it into the first post-meeting stories. It would also give the journalists traveling on the plane with us minor scoops. She spoke with the journalists in that more protected location because to attempt the same brief comments in the spacious hotel lobby would have risked being trampled by the stampede of TV cameras, sound men and every working journalist in Southeast Asia waiting there. In fact, one of the things that led me to arrange things the way we did was reading earlier in the day a Reuters story about one unsuspecting lower level delegation member being hit in the head by a TV camera whose operator was rushing to interview somebody, anybody. The same story talked about a small child nearly being caught up in the mad rush. Her time with our journalists done, Secretary Rice prepared for the ministerial dinner, knowing this year's event (her last as Secretary of State) would not include any silly skits or bad renditions of show tunes.



New York, USA
July 24, 2008

Ronald in New York writes:

@ Department Spokesman Sean McCormack -- Dear Sean;

When you get back to the podium:

1- Please tell us why Thomas Sweich is out of INL at State when he is the key truth-teller on Afghan Opium Corruption situation. Shouldn't he be heading INL? See; NYT Sunday Magazine for details.

2- Also, thank goodness there will be no 'bad renditions" by Sec. Rice at the ASEAN this year. We have had more than enough "bad renditions"...thanks for the reminder.

New Mexico, USA
July 25, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Wow. And the press prides itself so much on its awareness...

Gotta wonder when their mob mentality becomes a security issue.

United States
July 25, 2008

Zharkov in U.S.A. writes:

Is it too much to ask what negotiations were necessary, what was negotiated, what promises were made, and what obligations were assumed on behalf of present and future US taxpayers?

Why should these negotiations remain undisclosed to the public? What were the proposals and responses of the negotiators and what were their reasons for their response?

Can we at least pretend to be a representative form of government and tell our people what you are doing in their name?

Sean M.
New Zealand
July 26, 2008

Department Spokesman Sean McCormack writes:

@ Ronald --

I don't know why Tom left when he did, though he was somebody who came to government from the private sector to work for President Bush. If he cares to share his reasons, he will do so. I can tell you that Tom had the chance argue his views in government while he served, as is clear from his article. As someone who has both won and lost arguments on small and large matters in this Administration, you never like to lose, but it is hard to complain if you had a chance to argue your point but lost. Apparently, Tom has chosen a different tack, as is his right. History will judge right or wrong on many issues related to this Administration's foreign policy, including the fight against narcotics trade in Afghanistan. The stakes are enormous in Afghanistan. I can assure you, whatever the policy decisions are taken about Afghanistan, they are thoroughly considered and always subject to review regarding their effectiveness.

As for your second point, clever play on words.

New Mexico, USA
July 26, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ Sean, Regarding dealing with the poppy crop in Afghanistan...

Has anyone done a cost comparision on the amount spent on traditional efforts and methodologies, and what it would cost the international community to simply buy the entire poppy crop directly from the growers at a better price than the Taleban gives them?....for three consecutive growing seasons....because if we could convince the growers that we'll buy it for the length of time they need to develop other crops during the three years, then the average farmer will not feel his livelyhood to be threatened in the short term.

Obviously, if we out bid the Taleban (as an incentive to the grower to seel to us), then two things happen;

The opium is taken off the world market, and the Taliban go broke.

Sean, There's something about keeping things simple that sometimes gets lost in process, and whether my "argument" above is a winner or loser, if it gets folks thinking on new levels of understanding, then I've done my job as a citizen.

Not my place to make the decisions, thus I hold no personal attachment of ego to that determination made by others.

Maybe Tom just took things a little too personally.


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