It comes as no surprise that running foreign policy for the world's only remaining superpower is a busy job. Even by that standard, however, the schedule kept by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright during her recent whirlwind tour of the Middle East seemed little short of masochistic.
In the course of a five-day visit that began Sept. 1, Albright touched down in five countries--Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Syria and Lebanon--as well as the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, several of them more than once.
On Saturday, for example, Albright and her entourage woke up early in Jerusalem, boarded her blue-and-white Boeing 757 jet and flew to Damascus, Syria. After wrapping up meetings with the Syrian president and foreign minister, Albright dropped in on the Lebanese prime minister in Beirut, then flew on to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for a signing ceremony on a new Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.
The ceremony, scheduled for 11:30 p.m., didn't begin until after midnight. Albright then flew back to Israel and was back at her hotel around 2 a.m.--roughly 20 hours after her workday began.
THE STATE OF HEALTH: Given the grueling pace of her job, Albright is understandably concerned about taking care of her health. So she recently followed the example of other overworked executives and consulted a personal trainer. But as she told reporters on the flight back to Israel from Sharm el Sheikh, the trainer did not seem to fully comprehend the nature of her existence.
Not only did he recommend that she keep a "food diary" to record her caloric intake, chuckled Albright, but he also asked her to keep track of her daily schedule so he could design a program of regular exercise. As if.
BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL: One of the highlights of Albright's Middle East tour was her brief visit to Beirut. It was not her first: Albright had flown to Lebanon by helicopter from Cyprus in 1997. But until she landed there on Saturday afternoon, no American secretary of state had flown into the city's international airport since George Schultz in 1983. The airport, near Hezbollah strongholds in the city's southern suburbs, was not considered secure. That has been a sore point with the Lebanese government, which is eager to court foreign investment and spent millions renovating its airport. Albright's decision to use the facility was thus welcomed as a major symbolic milestone.
In some ways, however, Albright's visit only underscored continuing American anxieties about security in the Lebanese capital. As her aircraft approached the airport, security personnel ordered passengers to close their window shades--to protect against "head shots" by snipers on the ground, an official said later.
Also as a precaution against ground fire, the pilot dove steeply toward the runway, landing so hard that one of the overhead panels in the passenger compartment popped loose. Albright and her entourage were then bundled into a convoy guarded by federal agents equipped with flak jackets, combat helmets and automatic rifles. The breakneck journey from the airport to the prime minister's downtown office--on sealed-off streets lined with Lebanese army troops--took perhaps 10 minutes, surely a record in the traffic-clogged Lebanese capital.
IN THE DETAILS: There is an inevitable tension between the needs of journalists and diplomats. The latter, after all, traffic in secrets and ambiguities; journalists deal in facts. That tension is especially evident when the subject is Middle East peace. Eager to present themselves as "honest brokers" between Israel and its Arab adversaries, U.S. officials are reluctant to say much of anything, fearing it could betray a confidence or fuel a perception of favoritism.
Witness some excerpts from Albright's exchange with reporters aboard her plane last week as they hurtled across the Atlantic toward the first stop in Rabat, Morocco.
"I'm not going to get into details of what they are agreeing on."
"I am not going to get into any details of what we are going to do in Damascus."
"I'm not going to go into details."
"I have no comment on that at this stage."
Albright, in fact, resorted to the not-going-to-give-any-details formulation no less than eight times in the single airborne "press availability" session--and on a number of occasions thereafter. So what did she actually accomplish in the Middle East? We're not going to get into details here.