March 8, 2017

Washington, the world's newest Third World capital

Watching the spectacle of TV legend Andrea Mitchell being ignored and ushered out of the seventh-floor parlor of the State Department as she tried to ask questions of our notoriously reclusive Secretary of State and his visiting counterpart, I was reminded of a visit to the President of Azerbaijan nearly 20 years ago.

Our audience with the late Haidar Aiyev was at the Presidential Palace in Baku, overlooking the
As a non-journalist, I was welcome to remain.
sparkling Caspian Sea. To enter the chamber, we had to navigate two dozen reporters, photographers, and TV cameras, recording the whole scene.

We were seated at one long table across from the President's table, with flowers in between. As the junior member of our delegation, I was a few places over from center, next to the U.S. Embassy's political officer. The press were strung out behind us and around the edge of the tables.

Aliyev and our delegation chair exchanged brief greetings and pleasantries. Then, before we got down to the real business, President Aliyev announced, "I would now like thank the members of the press."

As these journalists all raced for the exit, I leaned over and whispered to my new Embassy pal, "In other words, last one out gets arrested." He took umbrage, responding, "The President was merely expressing appreciation!" By the way, such a response can be one symptom of "client-itis", when a foreign service officer identifies excessively with the interests and norms of his or her host country.

Back to the present... This week, for the first time since the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. State Department finally resumed daily press briefings. But the irony of an American Secretary of State whose authoritarian counterparts -- including Russia's foreign minister -- are more accessible to the press than he is boggles the mind.

All those years ago, with the Cold War memories still fresh in my mind and still visible on the faces of the leaders and diplomats across the former Soviet Union, their degree of state control over information was understandable. That comparable optics and limitations are now imposed in Washington, DC, is both shameful and sobering.