On The Plane...

Shannon, Ireland -- the Traditional Rest Stop

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007; 11:44 AM

SHANNON, Ireland, Jan. 13--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trips to the Middle East must always start here.

Her specially-fitted Boeing 757 jet, complete with a large office that includes a desk and a fold-out bed, does not have extended-range engines or the fuel capacity to make it all the way to Tel Aviv or to Arab capitals in a single flight.

So, continuing a tradition that began when the State Department entered the jet age, her plane makes a refueling stop here, allowing her staff and reporters to stretch their legs, buy cheap booze, cigars and perfume at the duty-free shop and quaff Irish coffees or Guinness beers at the bar. The Shannon airport proudly notes that it is the birthplace of the Irish coffee, that magical elixir of potent coffee, Irish whiskey and whipped cream.

Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, often joined the staff and reporters at the bar for one or two Irish coffees. (In what may be an apocryphal story, another Secretary of State was reported to ask for his Irish coffee decaf--without the whiskey.)

Shannon is a frequent stopping point for soldiers headed to and from Iraq, and Rice posed for photos with the troops on her maiden voyage as Secretary of State two years ago. But since then Rice has generally stayed in her cabin, asleep or catching up on her work.

This is Rice's 12th trip to the Middle East since she became Secretary of State two years ago, and the anticipation is high. She is coming to the region two days after President Bush unveiled a new strategy for Iraq--and one day after the plan was roasted on Capitol Hill.

Her aides have hinted that she is prepared to launch a new effort to rekindle the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The growing power of Iran also is seen as a looming threat to many of the United States' closest allies. But Rice is venturing back in the Middle East when most analysts believe the prospects for any kind of breakthrough is dim.

David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, even suggested Rice was inspired by the daunting odds.

Because expectations of "Rice's trips to the Middle East usually plunge lower than the Dead Sea, she seems to feel that she can quietly gauge receptivity to new approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian situation without setting off headlines," Makovsky wrote on Bitterlemons-international.org, a Web site devoted to the conflict.

Still, Rice is bringing along a planeload of reporters--16. There are representatives of eight newspapers, a three-person network pool crew and TV correspondent, two radio reporters and two wire-service reporters. (There were supposed to be three wire reporters, but one did not make it at the last minute.)

The reporters sit in the back, mostly in cramped coach seats, behind the business-class seats of Rice's staff and security agents. Before departure, the reporters pick numbers out of a cup to determine who gets the handful of prized business-class seats.

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