About the Author: Sean McCormack serves as Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. "We need color," said the journalists on the plane on our way to Tripoli, so I was geared up for color-gathering mode for the Secretary's meeting with Col. Qadhafi, or "The Leader" if you are a Libyan government official. We've all heard the stories of visiting officials being kept waiting hours for a meeting, only to end up in a different city than where they had started. I imagined having to scribble furiously in order to take in the sensory overload of meeting in the famous tent, complete with the even more famous white plastic lawn chairs. I was prepared for the interlocutor who interspersed his conversation with long, uncomfortable silences and who had left previous guests wondering if he were talking to them or the ceiling fan. I got none of that. I was faced with a color deficit.
We walked into the meeting room that was filled with journalists of all stripe -- print, photographers, cameramen, sound guys. I was the last of our delegation to enter the room, or so I thought, and stood on tiptoes to see over the wall of journalists for a glimpse of the man. He stood at the other end of the room in a white robe and black fez-like cap. I walked to one side of the room to stand with other members of the delegation, who were doing the same thing that I was: looking for Secretary Rice. To my surprise though, she had held for a moment in her car, so she was coming in behind the rest of us.
Next came one of the moments where you say to yourself, "how did I get here?" After Col. Qadhafi greeted the Secretary, an anxious protocol person was working to find the rest of the American delegation, which was stuck on the other side of the room behind about 80 journalists. I then found myself the first to work through the throng of bodies and before I knew it, shaking Qadhafi's hand. I traveled the span of about 20 years in those few seconds -- remembering the images of the ‘80's and ‘90's and a violent period in U.S.-Libyan relations.
For those seeking color, the room provided none. It was a modest, wood-paneled meeting room lined by chairs and couches for host and visiting delegations. I've been to meetings in rooms like this one a hundred times. After about twenty minutes of discussion between Col. Qadhafi and Secretary Rice, the meeting moved to a one-on-one between the two (along with interpreters and note-takers). Contrary to all those news reports, Qadhafi engaged in a direct, free flowing conversation with the Secretary.
That's all for now, the laptop battery is low. More on the trip from Tunisia, our next stop.