American Diplomacy

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Islamabad, Pakistan. Midday.

We’ve been waiting for Secretary Clinton’s team to arrive for over an hour now. The setting is the rooftop terrace of an arts building in Islamabad. It is one of the few non-governmental locations where Secretary Clinton will go for meetings during this trip.

Like all locations this spot has been chosen and the Secretary’s every move mapped out prior to her arrival by an advance team that came here a week ahead of the trip, working with US foreign service officers  from the embassy to ensure maximum impact for each and every event. And this event is an important one. It’s with Pashtun elders from Pakistan’s tribal regions where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have found refuge along the Afghanistan frontier.

They’re from the towns and villages now being subjected to US drone attacks. And a major talking point they will bring up—it is clear—are ongoing civilian deaths in those attacks.

These folks are pretty important because swaying them, showing them respect, and getting them to help leverage US interests could go a long way to helping the war effort not only here in Pakistan—but also the one across the border in which US troops are fighting and dying.

But we’ve been waiting a long while. And although this rooftop spot might’ve been lovely an hour or two ago, it’s now midday and the sun is absolutely baking the veranda and chairs in which each elder sits. And folks are become visibly frustrated. US Department of State employees try to placate each, but they’re clearly irritated as the clock ticks on. Soon, many are off in a corner, lying on the ground in the shade.

It’s been an obvious challenge we’ve witnessed throughout our journey with the State team.

Each day is packed from dawn sometimes past mid-night with event after event. Some of the traveling press who have covered the Department of State for years (or even decades) tell me they’ve never witnessed this kind of grueling pace before. It is testament to Secretary Clinton’s legendary stamina—something to which everyone attests. But it’s also seemingly a relic of the fact that so many in her immediate circle are campaign or Capitol Hill veterans.

Many of the journalists say she runs State like a campaign. Which makes for an impressive array of meetings—but can also mean that the daily schedule is so jam-packed that deeply substantive discourse is sometimes tough to pull off…

And today, these local Pashtun elders are baking in the hot Islamabad sun & perhaps wondering, after an hour’s wait, just how much a priority they are to the Americans.

But then—the Secretary finally arrives. And it is a big deal.

The fact that America’s top diplomat wants to meet with them personally seems to strike a chord.

That said: when the questions come—the elders are not at all reticent. They seem not at all intimidated. And questions do arise, as they will everywhere Clinton goes in Pakistan, about drone strikes. For her part, the Secretary answers with typical candor.

In all, it’s an impressive display of the “public diplomacy” we will witness throughout the Pakistan journey.

Unscripted questions from the elders. Frank conversation. Unscripted, if not entirely unexpected, answers from the Secretary.

Given the candor and intimacy (they’re all sitting in chairs arranged in a circle around a simple red rug), the long wait is seemingly forgotten. Soon, these elders will return to homes where bloodshed and intimidation are a part of the rhythm of life. Having had an audience with one of the most powerful women on Earth cannot change the paradigm. But it might be a first step in building trust between these people and the Americans or at least with the Pakistani government.

When it is over, I ask one of the elders who was most strident in his criticism about drone strikes, “did you get the answers you sought?”

His reply begins: “The world is a beautiful garden and has no room for garbage…” Wondering exactly where he’s going—I merely nod and listen.

He continues, “and so—the weak? Our words must match our actions. The strong? If their words match their actions—then we will be satisfied.”

Having heard his question to the Secretary about drone strikes and her answer, I’m not so sanguine about the future for his village. Because his comment to the Secretary in essence was, ‘they have to stop these drone strikes or more innocents will die’… And her response echoed the American line, ‘we regret any loss of innocent life but given the fact that our enemies are there and unless you help push Al Qaeda and the Taliban out of your region—drone strikes must continue’

Despite the honest exchange and candor, in truth: the Taliban and Al Qaeda will likely continue to hunker down along the frontier. Drone strikes will likely continue in the region around his village. And innocent civilians will continue to die. Because that’s what happens in war. And this elder and even the US Secretary of State have no way of changing that equation.

Video Preview: “Clinton in Pakistan” — In order to take part in a nationally broadcast town hall interview in Pakistan, Secretary of State Clinton will endure the hot seat.

Cairo, Egypt. Sometime around midnight.

Over the past ten days, we’ve traveled from Islamabad to Lahore to Islamabad to Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv to Marrakesh to another town in Morocco I can’t even remember back to Marrakesh and now to Cairo. Some 14,000 miles.

And we’re not even close to heading home yet.

We’re now in Cairo because of the use of a single word by the Secretary in Tel Aviv (or I should say, the various interpretations applied to that word by the people involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), which set the Arab press afire, which necessitated what one of my traveling colleagues calls a “damage control” trip to meet President Hosni Mubarak.

It’s been a fascinating ride. Witnessing how delicate and difficult the Secretary’s job truly is. And seeing first-hand, how phrases are parsed almost microscopically for meaning by those speaking the words—and those hearing the words.

Proof-positive that the world of diplo-speak is a minefield – even for veterans like Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton will, in her interview with me, lament the fact that (paraphrasing) ‘even though we were brought up to believe in telling the truth and nothing but the truth, diplomacy’s legacy is full of half truths’. (And when she says this, it’s pretty clear she means untruths…) And, it seems to me anyway, that this rankles a woman whose DNA seems constructed to favor strident wording over minced-mouth discretion.

And whose bulk of public speaking has been on the campaign trail.

When she finally does grant us our sit-down interview it is an astounding experience for me. After months of witnessing (and being subjected to) diplo-speak myself, her candor in the interview is utterly refreshing.

Every film is a learning experience on so many levels. And this project’s been a doozy.

Having covered numerous military units both downrange and in the States, I originally expected the Department of State folks to be somewhat more open and less cautious of the press. In the end, they prove the exact opposite. Which marks a huge learning curve for me.

When I ask a correspondent who just moved from covering the Pentagon to covering the Department of State, he agrees that everyone down to non-com officers (sergeants) in the military will talk pretty openly once you gain trust. But here at State, it’s a stovepipe operation. And everyone but everyone MUST follow the Secretary’s lead.

When you think about it—it makes perfect sense.

A combat platoon in Helmand Province Afghanistan comes under fire—the 24 year-old kid in charge of that unit can’t wait for orders from above. He’s gotta act and act now to save his men. It’s all about action and reaction in the blink of an eye. There’s no bureaucracy in combat. Not when the bullets are flying anyway.

The military only uses ‘message’, cautious wording and outreach as a war-winning tool. And that job is usually confined to a small group of specialists. Sure, counterinsurgency requires political awareness. But staying alive and fighting the enemy take precedence. They have to—or you don’t come home.

But for the folks at State—‘message’ is everything. In diplomacy, ‘message’ is arguably the most critical element of all. And that means speaking with one voice—or not speaking at all. And that’s why so many spokespeople at State are masters at talking a bunch and not saying a word all at the same time.

When it comes time for Secretary Clinton to speak with us, instead of the 20 minutes promised—she chats for an hour.

And speaks so openly about America’s strengths AND weaknesses… Successes in foreign policy AND failures… It only reaffirms my belief that Secretary Clinton’s openness reflects great confidence… Confidence not only in herself—but in America.

I find it the best moment of the entire 10 month journey I make on the film.

In the Clinton Motorcade Traveling from Cairo International Airport, Oh-Dark-Thirty PM…

So here we are arriving in Cairo to once again enter ‘the Bubble’.

The next destination: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s enormous palace residence.

“The Bubble” refers to the Secretary’s security motorcade, entourage, and traveling environment. While on the road with the US Secretary of State, everyone—press, staff, Diplomatic Security, and the Secretary herself—dwells inside a protective bubble. And since every trip is scripted down to the minute long before they ever leave the US, every movement, every overnight stay, every meal, meeting and event takes place within the confines of this artificial realm.

Unless you miss the motorcade. In which you are ‘outside the bubble’. And, once outside, it is very, very difficult to get back in…

Thus, we are warned, time and time again—never ever leave the bubble. And never miss your ride. It’s advice we’ve somehow managed to follow despite all the gear and our tendency to want that last shot of Clinton entering her limousine—before we run like hell to the press van at the back of the pack before it speeds off.

Putting Cairo International Airport and Secretary Clintons plane behind us (it’s a converted 757 designated “Special Air Mission”—or SAM for short)  we make our way through Cairo en route to meet Mubarak.

Once again, I’m traveling through a city I’ve visited in years’ past while making other films. But traveling in the bubble through Cairo is like seeing the city in a movie and nothing more.

Because I only see it through the armored glass of our vehicle. As is typical, every side road and all traffic along the route are blocked. The streets are cleared. Every intersection we pass is barricaded by Egyptian soldiers with weapons, holding back a throng of pedestrians craning for a look at our motorcade whisking by. We are cruising to yet another meeting room in another building—never to actually set foot in the city we are in or meet any of the people who live here below the rank of General, Foreign Minister, or President.

It’s an odd feeling when you are used to steeping yourself in local culture for every overseas trip you take. A sanitized version of travel that is somehow terribly easy and slightly demoralizing all at the same time.

Video Preview: “The State Department Bubble” — As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels the globe, she’s accompanied by a 40-member entourage and a press junket.

Kabul, Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai’s Palace. 9PM (or thereabouts!)

At the request of Secretary Clinton’s people—I have traveled east from my home in Colorado to Washington, DC to pickup a Chinese visa, then that very same day am headed westward again to LA and on to Beijing, China to meet up with the State team.

From Beijing, Clinton is heading to Kabul for President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration. And it’s important National Geographic Channel cameras capture the Secretary’s 30-hour visit to Kabul for the big event.

Especially after all the controversy.

Across the world, America included, Karzai’s election is largely seen as fraudulent. With 90,000 troops on the ground, the US needs a strategic partner in Afghanistan. Without a strategic partner, a leader to hang the building of Afghan society upon, the US war effort there is essentially doomed. And other than Karzai there is simply no one else.

Thus, despite intense US pressure on Karzai to clean up his act (it doesn’t help that his brother is thought to be a drug trafficker) Secretary Clinton has no choice but to attend Karzai’s inauguration, make a show of public support, while privately conveying the Obama administration’s deep concerns—and demands.

Karzai’s inagural speech will be key in relaunching the war effort. The State team is here, in part, to ensure he strikes the right chords in tomorrow’s speech to reassure US allies of his intentions. And to convey the idea that he’s willing to clean up his act. And although no one will openly say it, many think it obvious that the Americans actually have a strong hand in writing Karzai’s inaugural speech.

It will be an important moment—because the international community; the countries providing troops and treasure to the US war effort here, are becoming fed up. The Clinton team is here to make sure Karzai stays on message.

The night before the ceremony, just hours after landing, we in the press board Clinton’s motorcade and head out for a meeting between the Secretary and Karzai.

By the time we arrive for the meeting between Karzai and Clinton, my experience with the rhythm for these kind of events has long been established after witnessing the State team at work in many countries already.

No matter the leader, no matter the setting, there is a groundhog quality to every meeting.

We in the press are ushered into a room for a “camera spray” (the kind of phrase that’d make any self-respecting National Geographic filmmaker wince) where we get a few minutes to film Secretary Clinton and another dignitary exchange greetings and pleasantries.

Then, as always, we are whisked from the room (in this case by beefy Afghan security types), to a waiting area for the next hour or so until Clinton and Karzai emerge for a walk to the next room and next camera spray.

We’ve been on this story for almost 8 months now—and I’ve come to realize that patience isn’t just desirable. It is utterly necessary for survival when covering this story.

As one renowned correspondent recently assigned to cover State told me (this guy spent years overseas drenched in local culture before coming back to Washington, DC) the State beat takes incredible patience because there is so much damn waiting around…

Because diplomacy—as Secretary Clinton will say in her interview with us—is a game of incremental gains requiring immense staying power.

And for correspondents and filmmakers alike—incremental gains equals incremental story-making. Doused in gallons of diplo-speak—it can be an absolutely debilitating story to cover. Especially since most of the ‘meat’ takes place (and rightly so) behind closed doors. (You cannot have cameras recording folks like Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas negotiating Middle East peace. That just isn’t going to happen!)

And that’s why staying power for even we filmmakers—especially on this kind of story—is critical.

Sure enough—by the next morning and after all the other press has been kicked out, our National Geographic cameras are allowed to stay in the room several minutes longer than the pack. In the process, I’m able to record the ‘meat’ of a frank discussion between Clinton and the Foreign Ministers representing each of the countries providing troops to the war effort. For our film, each such moment is a tiny Holy Grail to be grasped and taken home with great reverence. Because these are the moments that will grant our film the insight it needs to be, well, filmic—and not a simple news piece.

Like so many other moments on this 10-month journey—this small window into the behind-the-scene lives of diplomats shows world leaders in real-time moving toward decisions that will, for some American GI, Afghan farmer, Taliban fighter, or British soldier—mean the difference between life and death.

We capture two or three such gems on the Afghanistan trip.

I’ve traveled more around the world in four days—and have come away with perhaps 3 or 4 minutes of truly insightful material.

Was it worth it?

I won’t really know until we emerge from the edit suite five months from now.

Despite the unique difficulties of this film—even as I write this—I think back on the moments I’ve witnessed…

And realize what a profound opportunity it was to watch history being made traveling the globe with a State team that works incredibly hard, long, exhausting days… With little rest between trips…

These folks are doing what they’re doing because they love this country, are incredibly devoted to their boss, realize full well the stakes at hand—and that the reinvigoration of American diplomacy isn’t only necessary for this country’s success. It is vital to the creation of a world where words—however carefully parsed and even if sometimes misinterpreted—must take precedence over violent action. And that conversely, words are sometimes the necessary precursors to any positive action at all.

Don’t miss Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in “Inside the State Department” premiering November 8th at 9P et/pt.