On Scene: 'Skepticism is Certainly Understandable'

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There’s a saying in Washington that diplomacy is the art of getting someone else to have your way. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, the most senior diplomats of the nations that invaded Iraq three years ago, the way is clear: Iraqi politicians must lay aside sectarian and factional differences, and sometimes plain old ego-tripping, and quickly form a “national unity” coalition government to fulfill the promise of the unprecedented national elections of Dec. 15.

But there was another reason for the diplomatic pair’s alarm; the Washington maxim that all politics is local. With Iraq teetering on the edge of civil war, the poll numbers of both the Bush and Blair governments were sliding and their political effectiveness was diminished. “The American people, and the British people, and others who have sacrificed need to know that everything is being done to keep progress moving here,” Rice said at a press conference in Baghdad on April 3rd.

“The skepticism certainly in my country is understandable,” Straw admitted at the same press conference, “as long as there appears to be slower progress than anticipated.”

In a last-ditch effort to galvanize Iraqi pols, Rice and Straw traveled to Baghdad together over the weekend in the hopes that their combined clout would make an impact where individual visits, calls and messages through envoys had failed. To keep their mission secret, they waited until well after dark Saturday to take off from Liverpool, where Straw had been showing Rice around his constituency. They used Rice’s 757 and, knowing that Straw was suffering from a lingering bronchial infection, she insisted he sleep on the pull-out bed in her cabin. To his embarrassment, Straw learned only the next morning that Rice had slept on the floor by the galley.

They flew into a cloud of rain and dust in Kuwait City, transferred to a U.S. Air Force C-17, landed in a pounding thunderstorm at Baghdad International and, because the weather had grounded the US military Blackhawk fleet, boarded an armored SUV and drove into city along the notoriously perilous airport road. At one point they were slowed by a traffic blockage. They went straight to meetings that continued into dinner with Iraqi leaders at U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s residence. The sound of an exploding mortar round that had been lobbed over the green zone’s walls disrupted conversations that were, by all accounts, serious and intense.

The political risks were equally formidable. The diplomats’ primary mission was to convince the Iraqis to agree on a prime minister who is, as Rice put it on Monday, “a strong leader, who's a unifying force and someone who can bring stability and meet the challenges that face the Iraqi people.“

Acting Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari doesn’t fit the bill, as far as she and Straw are concerned, because he has been unable to pull together a coalition government so far, and they don’t think his odds are improving. Though they insisted in public they weren’t meddling in internal Iraqi politics, they are known to have told Jaafari bluntly in private that the numbers were against him.

But he didn’t bow out by the time Rice and Straw had to depart, and there is no certainty he will anytime soon. So there were no breakthroughs to announce. When asked if the Iraqi pols had gotten the message, Rice said, “Yeah. Well, I had a very strong sense that the message was indeed getting through. I don't think that the Iraqi leaders were unaware of the importance of getting this government formed.”

Straw also expressed hope that the frank discussions stir the Iraqis to action. But, he acknowledged, he had enjoyed this feeling before, and it had passed.

“I'm very conscious of the fact,” he said yesterday, “that I was last here on February the 21st. The word that was in my ears as I left was that which a leading Sunni politician had uttered to me that he was quite optimistic about the future. I got back to the U.K. I went to bed, I woke up in the morning to the terrible news about the attack on the Holy Shrine.” The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra touched off new rounds of vicious attacks between Shiites and Sunnis.

It's likely that Rice and Straw will have to deploy their diplomatic skills many times before Iraq has it their way.