By Steve Vogel and Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 26, 2007
Inside the ornate Memorial Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, where delegates for the Middle East peace conference are to gather tomorrow, a large blue flag hangs, bearing words immortal in American history: "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP."
The flag is not intended as a message to the parties who abandoned the peace process in 2000, U.S. State Department officials said.
"The flag has obviously been in there for a long time, and it will be there for a long time after this conference is over," said Brian R. Besanceney, deputy chief of staff for planning for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Yet symbolism was a major reason that Annapolis, the 300-year-old city on the Severn River, was chosen as the setting for the conference, which is to be attended by President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Syria announced yesterday that it plans to send a deputy foreign minister. And delegates from nearly 50 countries and organizations have also been invited.
Rice "wanted something that was unmistakably American, that had a strong historic provenance," Besanceney said in an interview. "Certainly, Annapolis fit those criteria very well."
Annapolis also fit other criteria: State Department officials wanted a site within helicopter range of or a short airplane flight from Washington to make it easier for Bush and other officials to attend. They needed a facility large enough to accommodate at least 50 delegations because of Arab insistence that the conference have broader international representation. They needed a site that could be flexible on dates because of uncertainty about when the conference would take place. And they needed a place with tight security. The academy grounds, surrounded by water and a tall brick wall, "are probably easier to secure than some places," Besanceney said.
But the setting and history -- both the city's and the academy's -- are "probably 75 percent" of the reason it was chosen, he said.
The primary meetings will be in Memorial Hall, sometimes described as the spiritual heart of the academy. It lies in the center of Bancroft Hall, the academy's sprawling dormitory.
The words stitched on the flag in Memorial Hall are said to be the dying command of James Lawrence, captain of the USS Chesapeake, who was mortally wounded during a naval battle with the British during the War of 1812.
Beneath the flag, a scroll bears the names of more than 900 academy graduates killed in action in the nation's wars. "We want to remind the delegates of that sacrifice," Besanceney said.
He also noted that the city hosted the Annapolis Convention in 1786, which led to the Constitutional Convention the next year in Philadelphia.
"The city of Annapolis played an important but overlooked role in creating our country," he said. "That fact was not lost on us."
Nor was it lost on Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, delighted that her city was chosen for the conference.
"We're a first-class city, and we have dealt with major conferences going back to the Revolutionary War, as a matter of fact," Moyer said. "Small-town we are not."
She said Annapolis could be linked to a historic peace agreement, such as the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the conflict in Bosnia.
"What could be better?" Moyer said. "It would be a historic, historic moment."
The city offered to host a reception for the delegates, but the State Department turned down the invitation because of the conference's tight schedule.
Moyer (D) nonetheless issued a proclamation declaring tomorrow "Annapolis Conference Day" and calling on "all the citizens thereof to redouble their appreciation for service to one's community and fellow man as the highest calling one can heed."
The superintendent of the academy, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, who at the start of the school year declared war on distractions for midshipmen by restricting their liberty and extracurricular activities, said in a statement that he was pleased at the prospect of hosting hundreds of foreign delegates and reporters.
"We are honored that the Naval Academy has been chosen as the setting for the Annapolis Conference," his statement said.
Classes will be held tomorrow, although some school facilities are being taken over for the conference. Some classes will likely monitor news coverage of the conference, academy officials said.
"We've worked closely with the academy to ensure that our schedule didn't disrupt the schedule for meals and that midshipmen can get to their classes without undue security checks," Besanceney said. "We've tried to be very sensitive to that."
Perhaps no one is happier about the conference than the city's hoteliers, who -- unlike shop and restaurant owners -- typically experience a lull in business around the holidays.
"This is good for the hotels in Annapolis," said Larry Beiderman, general manger of the Loews Annapolis Hotel, which is close to sold-out today and tomorrow, unusual at this time of year.
"My sense is that the majority of our guests are here from some business related to the conference," he said.
Beiderman said that the hotel decided "to do our little part" for the peace effort by arranging a special turndown service for guests: a homemade sugar cookie with white icing, "in the shape of a dove with an olive branch."
In case the doves are too subtle, each cookie will be accompanied by a keepsake card bearing lyrics from John Lennon's paean to peace, "Imagine."
The conference "sort of puts us on the global map for a couple days," said Bob Burdon, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce. "So long term, that's going to be good for the economy."
But Annapolis's moment in the spotlight will be short.
After White House meetings and a State Department dinner tonight in Washington, the conference will formally open tomorrow morning in Annapolis.
Bush, Olmert and Abbas will meet in the morning, then attend a lunch hosted by Rice. A series of plenary sessions are to be held in the afternoon, followed by a meeting with reporters. After that, Annapolis's role will end. Any further meetings for the conference would be held in Washington, Besanceney said.
Officials said there are no guarantees that motorists in Washington and Annapolis will not be inconvenienced as delegations move about. "I certainly can't promise that," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"Just when you have this number of people descending on one place in a restricted period of time, there are probably going to be some disruptions," he added. "We're doing everything we can to make sure that any disruptions are minimal."
The State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Secret Service are working closely with state and local officials, he said.
"The Yard," as the academy grounds are known, will be closed to the public today and tomorrow. "We have a lot of confidence in our colleagues from the Coast Guard and the Navy," Besanceney said. "I'm sure they'll have their game faces on Tuesday."
The U.S. Homeland Security Department said last week that it had found no reports of credible terrorist threats to the conference but urged state and local police to be on alert.
The Annapolis Police Department issued a statement saying it was "well experienced" at handling major events, including dealing with the mobs of visitors that come for Navy football games and an annual boat show. "While there are never any guarantees, the public should be advised that we feel we have taken and will take all reasonable steps to ensure the rights, safety and interests of all parties affected," the statement said.
Among those breathing easier, doubtlessly, is Bill the Goat.
The Naval Academy's mascot has occasionally been kidnapped by Army cadets during the traditional hijinks leading up to the annual Army-Navy football game, scheduled for Saturday in Baltimore.
"This would be a pretty bad time for somebody to try to grab the goat, I would think," Besanceney said.