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The Anti-Junket Is Coming to Town

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

There are no plans for sightseeing tours, shopping sprees or three-anything lunches when leaders from 20 countries, accompanied by large delegations of officials, business people and journalists, visit the capital during the next two days for a world economic summit.

Instead, the event promises to be brief, sober and businesslike, in keeping with the grim financial outlook facing every country at the summit, including the host, and the timing of the meeting during a power lull between administrations in Washington.

"There will not be much time. Our delegation will arrive at 6 p.m. tomorrow and leave right after the meeting and possibly a press conference Saturday," Emanuel Lenain, a spokesman for the French Embassy, said yesterday. Between formal discussions, he said, President Nicolas Sarkozy "will work and work." His glamorous wife, former model Carla Bruni, will not be with him, and he will attend tonight's White House dinner alone.

"I can't think of anything fun or special that's been planned. After all, they will be trying to solve the world's financial problems," said a spokeswoman for another European embassy, whose delegation will also land just in time for tonight's dinner and leave right after the summit ends early tomorrow afternoon.

Security arrangements will be massive and complex. More than 1,000 delegates and entourage members are slated to attend, and the expected heads of state include Chinese President Hu Jintao and Saudi King Abdullah.

The entire event will be held inside the National Building Museum, a majestically appointed fortress originally built as the Pension Bureau in 1887. The museum, at Judiciary Square, will be closed to the public today and tomorrow, as will the blocks surrounding it. The Judiciary Square Metro station will be closed most of tomorrow.

The only official event being held elsewhere is tonight's dinner hosted by President Bush; White House aides are describing it as a "working dinner" rather than a social occasion. Most state leaders are coming without their spouses. No guest list or menu was available yesterday, and there was no mention of any after-dinner entertainment.

More than 1,500 journalists from around the world have applied for summit press credentials. But journalists are being kept far from the meetings. The only media access to the summit will be two brief statements by Bush, at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. tomorrow.

There will also be a flurry of news briefings at various hotels and other locations tomorrow afternoon, just before delegations rush to the airport. The prospect suggests a chaotic scramble of limousines, security vehicles and taxis across the capital.

Beyond that, an elaborate outdoor "People's Summit" is being organized by several activist groups. The groups plan a "feast for the hungry" tonight at Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, a carnival tomorrow morning in Murrow Park, at 18th and H Street NW, and an afternoon discussion of the world financial crisis at Luther Place Church in Northwest.

"We want to show that there are alternatives to capitalism and explain how this crisis happened. These leaders are trying to revive a system that is not sustainable and that is causing people to suffer all over the world," said Samantha Miller, an organizer from Students for a Democratic Society in Los Angeles. "While they are having their gala dinner with Bush, we will have a dinner for the homeless."

But the theme of rich nations' capitalist greed may fall a little flat, given the mood of grim austerity that is gripping the world's economic powers. At briefings in Washington this week, speakers noted that expectations for the summit have been lowered considerably since it was planned, with many participants distracted by their own countries' worsening financial problems.

"We're in the beginning . . . of the current crisis, so having some broad restructuring at this point would be like, in the middle of a five-alarm fire, calling in the fire chiefs and trying to restructure the fire department," Steven Schrage, an international business expert, said at one briefing by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Schrage and other experts said that with the Bush administration about to leave office and President-elect Barack Obama not yet ready to undertake major policy initiatives, there is not much point in world leaders investing a lot of time and energy in engaging U.S. officials.

"The fact is, this is an outgoing administration and the people coming in are not here yet," one embassy spokesman said. "So what's the point of hanging around?"

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