Posted by: Shaun | March 25, 2008

Dissecting a State Department press briefing

State Dept. Seal

In Washington, there is a daily ritual that occurs along side other traditional happenings like the opening prayer in Congress and the President’s morning nap (supervised by the Director of National Intelligence). It is the State Department’s daily press briefing. The briefing is a chance for reporters to get the official stance state straight from the horse’s mouth; which, in this case, would be the mouth of Sean McCormack.

Like its White House counterpart, the State Department press briefing is characterized by probing, incisive questions (ex. “There was a question of why the briefing is so early today, and I said perhaps it’s because the Red Sox are on TV. [Laughter.]”) and carefully worded, evasive answers (ex. “No, that’s tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m., the Red Sox begin their defense of their World Series title and begin the baseball season.”). Unlike many White House press briefings, the State Department briefing is incredibly boring; to the point that a self-proclaimed C-Span junkie like myself (who usually follows committee hearings the way most people follow Lost) dozes off by the fifth or sixth question. I decided it might be fun to take a few points from yesterday’s briefing and recast them in more punchy language while also trying to decipher the reality behind the vague, diplomatic wording. So here it goes.

Here, Mr. McCormack addresses the ongoing talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government initiated at the Annapolis Conference on Middle East peace:

QUESTION: Can you put — we’re now a good four months into the sort of post-Annapolis period. Can you put anything in that period that (a) demonstrates that either side is meeting their Roadmap obligations and (b) that you would argue constitutes material, substantive progress toward reaching an agreement of some sort by the end of this year, as the President hopes to do?

MR. MCCORMACK: In terms of Roadmap obligations, I guess I would just refer back to what the Secretary herself has said on this, and that is that each side needs to do more, that they haven’t done enough, and I expect that that will be a topic of her conversation when she goes out on the next trip as well as the trip after that. This is going to be something that we work with both sides in detail on.

General Fraser recently had the first trilateral meeting, I think, last – was it last week or the week before – with bringing together all the sides. I think it’s fair to say that we are still in the process of getting each side to focus on what they need to do and get out of the mode of pointing the finger at the other guy and talking about what they need to do. The focus needs to be on each side examining where it stands in terms of its obligations and what it is doing to meet its own obligations and worry less about what the other guy is doing or not doing […]

It’s our assessment, though, in talking to both sides that they are making progress. And they both have abided by a commitment to the other side that they are not going to talk about where they stand in negotiations. They are not going to do a blow-by-blow in public. We think that’s – we think that that is a wise decision at this point and, certainly, it’s not for us, then, to talk about what it is that we might have heard from each side in terms of where they stand in the political process.

First, we notice that McCormack refers constantly to the statements others have made, especially the Secretary of State. Moderately bothersome perhaps, but hey…he is the spokesman. The other thing we notice right away is that he doesn’t give us any specific evidence to back up his claim that things are going well. Just that both sides are making “good progress”…meaning they aren’t attempting to slaughter one another en masse at the moment. Sure, there might be the odd rocket attack on Israel or an IDF shooting near Gaza, but as long as nothing so horrifically shocking happens to inflame public opinion against even sitting at the table with the other side, talks continue. Progress. (Sadly, there’s some truth to this…)

On the recent scandal involving State employees snooping on presidential candidate’s passport files:

Okay, yes, lots of hands, yeah. Elise.

QUESTION: More on the passports. Just one quick follow-up on that. Can you say whether typically, passport files, in addition to the application, also have when the passport was – when and where the passport was used?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t think that – I’ll check for you, Elise, but I don’t believe that that is – that is in that —

QUESTION: In that —

MR. MCCORMACK: — that passport file, yeah, because it’s not the function of that file. We don’t keep a record of people entering into foreign countries. That’s not part of what we would do, as far as I know.

QUESTION: Okay. And then —

MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, to —

QUESTION: Entry into U.S. Can you check —

MR. MCCORMACK: Entry, that would – again, that’s not something that we keep. That’s something – that’s a separate function of the Department of Homeland Security. You can ask them what records they maintain in terms of people’s entry and exit into the United States, but that is not a function that we perform in terms of monitoring entry and exit to the United States.

An awkward question. McCormack is clearly groping for a dodge on this one and then-yes! That old favorite of officialdom, “the passing of the buck”. Unfortunately, the spokesman doesn’t know exactly what kind of information the perpetrators were able to see because the labyrinthine construction of bureaucracy charges another agency with that. Better go talk to DHS…

Finally, to the Tibetan protests against Chinese rule:

QUESTION: On Tibet, I know the Secretary spoke a little bit earlier this morning, but there’s been a lot of talk about the Olympics and whether there should be some kind of boycotting because of China’s actions towards Tibet. Do you think that the U.S. is sending the wrong message to China by attending the Olympics at such a high level?

MR. MCCORMACK: No.

QUESTION: President Bush is supposed to be attending.

MR. MCCORMACK: No. We’ve made our views clear on this. We believe that the Olympics is an important international sporting event. We’re going to treat it as such. And we have consistently and will consistently urge China to put its best face forward, to allow expansion of basic human freedoms, whether that’s the ability to report on events in China or to speak out in a peaceful manner to voice one’s own opinion in China, whether or not to be able to worship as an individual sees fit.

So we will – we have done that. We’ll continue to do that. And we would only counsel China that, given the fact that the Olympics is such a high-profile international sporting event, that there will be the world’s attention on China for those couple of weeks in August when they host the Olympics, and that that is an important opportunity for China and that they should take up the opportunity to put their best face forward to the world.

Here we find a long-time favorite of official State Department language: thinly veiled realpolitik. Simply put, the U.S. relationship with China is strategically crucial for a number of reasons, both economic and political. Thus, America has to attend China’s big coming out party at the Summer Olympics, otherwise Beijing will get upset and stop answering our calls or talking to us about exchange rate policy or something of the like. The problem is that Americans generally don’t like to see oppressive governments deploying paramilitary goons to crack the heads of protesters, however raucous. The solution, as is often the case, is to pay lip service to the idea of human rights (because we know China will put its “best face forward” if we just ask) while pursuing American national interests in the realm of policy.

Of course, as a student of international relations, I recognize that there is really little else for the U.S. to do, however galling this may be. I sometimes like to think that if the government invested more time educating the citizens of the United States about foreign policy and what American power can realistically achieve, we could dispense with this charade of discussing policy in such formulaic terms. Yet, I fear that is a might too idealistic…

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