More on Secretary Rice's Travel to the Middle East, Asia and the PacificSean McCormack: Away from the PodiumAbout the Author: Sean McCormack serves as Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.
Thursday, we left the permanent summer of Singapore for Australia, where we landed with enough time left in the day to attend a dinner in Secretary Rice's honor at the Western University of Australia in Perth. Foreign Minister Smith had invited Secretary Rice for a "home" visit during their first meeting about six months back, and this trip to "the region" for ASEAN provided the opportunity to fulfill a promise. People from a cross-section of western Australian political, civil society, arts, and sport communities attended the dinner, which included a welcome performance by a Noongar dance group. I was lucky enough to be seated up front and had the chance to speak with Perth's Mayor, City Council members and representatives from the business community. It's certain that I profited from the conversation more than my table companions, as I had hit a "wall" of jet lag and accumulated sleeplessness that made stringing together simple, declarative sentences a challenge. By the time we left for the hotel, the small group of protesters (no more than 15 people) present outside the university on arrival had left.
Friday, we began with a stop at the Foreign Minister's local coffee shop, where he and Secretary Rice sat down for a cup with the Foreign Minister's parents who still live in the neighborhood. I had a much needed "flat white," local coffee talk for coffee with milk, and watched while cameras and our traveling press corps took in the stop. Other stops included remarks at Mercedes College, where the Foreign Minister's daughter attends high school. Read the transcript for an example of one effective way to conduct retail public diplomacy. At root, I see it as allowing the individual to connect with a sense for who we are and our values, and we take away a better sense for how they see us. These types of visits are one way to accomplish that goal.
The Foreign Minister and Secretary also laid a wreath at Perth's memorial to those who had fallen in combat, originally erected after WWI, and also later held a press conference. After the press conference, both the Foreign Minister and Secretary walked past the area to where the motorcade was staged (if you've seen us blow into town, we don't arrive anywhere unnoticed) to shake hands with a group from a local boys’ high school -- equal time, as Mercedes College is an all girls’ school.
In between time, we visited the Campbell Defense Barracks, where Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) troops hosted the Foreign Minister and Secretary in the Sergeants' Mess. Press was not at the event. Lt. Gen. Ken Gillespie (Australian Chief of the Army) and Lt. Col. Dan McDaniel (SASR Commanding Officer) greeted the Foreign Minister and Secretary at the entrance to the Sergeants’ Mess. We walked down a hallway lined with photos of former Australian army chiefs, SASR officers, and fallen SASR members. We walked into the mess, where soldiers were assembled in three lines -- all of whom looked as though they could hike up a mountain, bench press a grizzly bear, and come back down without breaking a sweat. Both the Foreign Minister and Secretary made brief remarks from a podium and then spent the next 30 minutes talking with the soldiers individually and in small groups. Also present were some families of regiment members who lost their lives in combat. This group had lost several members to combat in Afghanistan over the past several years. This was meant to be a private moment, so I'll not violate that for the sake of a blog post, but I was struck by how brave these family members were who had lost a son, brother, husband, or father.
After a six hour flight from Perth, we landed last night in Auckland. After a good night's sleep (the first in three days) I’m ready for the day's program, though the news is reporting that we should brace this afternoon for an afternoon of torrential rain and gale force winds. More later.