Clinton treads carefully in leading massive damage-control campaign
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a regular meeting Monday morning with her Turkish counterpart, there was little sign of the crisis atmosphere that has enveloped the State Department since the huge leak of confidential diplomatic cables.
Standing before reporters, Clinton pronounced herself "delighted" to welcome "a colleague and friend here to the State Department." Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded with his own diplomatic niceties, saying it was "a great pleasure" to be visiting "my colleague and friend, Secretary Clinton."
But thousands of State Department cables, just released by WikiLeaks, were providing a glimpse into what U.S. diplomats really thought of some of their counterparts - including Davutoglu.
The correspondence, at one point, described Davutoglu as being among Turkish officials who are "lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies" and who "pull conspiracy theories off the Web."
For Clinton, the meeting became one more challenge in a massive damage-control operation she is leading on behalf of the Obama administration. She left Washington on Monday afternoon for a previously planned visit to central Asia and the Middle East that will bring her into contact with several leaders described in unflattering terms in the cables.
The damage-control operation began weeks ago, as officials realized that WikiLeaks had obtained a huge amount of diplomatic correspondence. Since then, State Department bureaus have drawn up assessments of the expected fallout of a release. A task force was appointed to run a 24-hour-a-day "war room" at the State Department, starting last Friday.
In the days before the disclosure, Clinton called leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France, Afghanistan, Canada and China to warn them of the leaks, officials said.
Earlier Monday afternoon, in her first public comments on the cables, Clinton blasted WikiLeaks and expressed confidence that the release wouldn't permanently damage U.S. relations abroad.
"Let's be clear: This disclosure is not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests," Clinton told journalists in the Treaty Room, an ornate Wedgewood-blue salon near her office. "It is an attack on the international community - the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity."
Around the world, American diplomats had been contacting national leaders to soften the blow of the cables, some of which presented unflattering portraits of U.S. allies. Many American diplomats fear documents that WikiLeaks has not yet released could prove even more damaging than the cables that have been disclosed.
"Foreign Service officers are in shock," said one senior diplomat at an overseas embassy, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Clinton sought to bolster morale, sending a note Sunday night to State Department personnel - "a message to the troops, if you will," said her spokesman, P.J. Crowley.
"We'll be making clear that, you know, we value the diplomatic work that is done at posts all over the world," Crowley said Monday.
One senior official said Clinton was stoic about dealing with the damage.
"As the nation's diplomat-in-chief, this is really unpleasant, and difficult and uncomfortable," said the official, who was not authorized to comment on the record. "But if you ask her, is it harder than trying to negotiate Middle East peace, or maintaining good relationships in Asia, or dealing with North Korea - no."
Clinton told reporters that it was imperative that State Department personnel continue to write candid reports back to Washington - despite the current embarrassment.
In a flash of humor amidst the gloom, she noted that one foreign leader shrugged off the blunt missives, telling her: "You should see what we say about you."