Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A little Egyptian mischief

When you follow Northern Ireland politics, you get used to bizarre behaviour at high-level political meetings. Thus a staple of the peace process, given the refusal of various parties to have direct discussions with each other, is the "proximity talks" format, in which the various squabbling parties only agree to meet separately with intermediaries, who then relay their basic points to the other side.

But under Dubya's presidency, this kind of behaviour is starting to look positively mature. From early on in his administration, Dubya has been using invitations to Camp David and Crawford as his signal of who gets to be a Heather. And then there's the whole policy of not talking to crazy dudes with nukes because ... well, it's not clear why, except that it seems too Clintonesque.

And so it is with the Iranians. Colin Powell has been busy shredding whatever remains of his dignity in his last few weeks in office, and his engagements this week required a snub to the Iranian foreign minister, even though they would both be attending an Iraq reconstruction conference in Sharm-al-Sheikh.

But of course, a pre-dinner instruction like "I absolutely, positively, won't sit beside X" merely invites the merry pranksters of the Egyptian protocol machine to arrange exactly that:

In a surprise encounter, Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi were dinner partners at the opening meeting Monday night. U.S. and Iranian officials, who had said there were no plans for discussions between the two men, expressed surprise at the dinner-table arrangement, and both sides said they believed the pairing was set up by Egypt, the conference host.

Despite this setback, the good soldier, peerless diplomat, and inventor of the doctrine that you win wars by bombing the sh*t out of the other side, gamely adapted:

Powell and Kharrazi engaged only in "some polite dinner conversation," a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Powell. "I do not consider the nuclear issues polite dinner conversation."

Not polite dinner conversation? If it was good enough for James Bond and Dr No, why isn't it good enough for the State Department?

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