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Back Issues of PDAA Today

Back issues of PDAA Today, PDAA’s quarterly print newsletter are now online and available for download.

Martin Quinn’s Story: From Baker to Pompeo

While the late Secretary of State George Shultz signed my first two Foreign Service commissions, 1983 and 1987, I never met or saw him. The first Secretary of State I saw up close was James Baker in a hotel room at the King David in Jerusalem in 1992.  Baker’s spokesperson and alter-ego Margaret Tutwiler was present, as were other Embassy Tel Aviv officers. The subject of the meeting almost certainly had to do with the international press covering the Secretary’s frequent, sometimes strained meetings with the Israeli leadership, during that post-Desert Storm, pre-Oslo period, but details escape me after nearly three decades.

In 1993 President Clinton’s Secretary, Warren Christopher, made the first of several visits to Israel.  Assigned to manage the media, I was present at Carlucci Point, a remote promontory on the Lebanon side of the Hula Valley, as Christopher descended from a helicopter, looking frail in a stiff breeze, to receive the obligatory IDF briefing on the significance of the Golan Heights in terms of Israel’s ultimate vulnerability. Christopher was so thin and wispy that I remember thinking it looked as if a sudden gust of wind could blow him straight off the mountainside.

Secretary Madeleine Albright I met only once or twice after she had left office at think-tank gatherings; she seemed as pleasantly grandmotherly as some have described her.

Had the pleasure to meet Secretary of State Colin Powell when NEA/PPD arranged an overseas video press conference/briefing for him at the Department of State in fall 2003. The topic had something to do with the Middle East, likely Iraq, but suddenly there was a technical problem. Suffice it to say, the Secretary and former general was not amused at the glitch.

On another occasion I ran into Secretary Powell in the basement gift shop at HST, shortly after his return from prostate surgery. Powell was well known for walking around the Department, through the cafeteria and off the 7th floor; in response to my wishes for his good health, he responded matter-of-factly.

A few months later Secretary Powell hosted a Ramadan iftar in HST’s 8th floor Ben Franklin Room. Guests included foreign diplomats and U.S. Government exchange program grantees from Muslim countries. At the end of the dinner, as the Secretary started making his way through the crowd, I found myself in conversation with a blind Yemeni Fulbright graduate student who asked me to introduce him to the Secretary of State.  I began to maneuver the student toward the Secretary until finally we were face-to-face. I introduced the young man and the Secretary instantly picked up on the student’s handicap.  Instead of merely extending his hand for what might have been a formal, cold greeting, Colin Powell embraced the student in a massive bear hug — so the young man could actually feel him, and have a tactile memory, as they exchanged words. Clearly the spontaneous gesture registered with the blind Yemeni Fulbrighter and revealed both the character and interpersonal instincts of the former general.

Not long after, Secretary Powell left the Department for the last time. I recall State Department employees weeping in the hallways.

Condoleezza Rice was the next Secretary I met, once at a domestic event in 2005 during which she offered heart-felt condolences to the family of a young Foreign Service Officer who was killed in Afghanistan. She made all the expected remarks about duty and heroic sacrifice, but the warmth of her personal interaction with the bereaved parents was especially memorable.

At my next post, as DCM Abu Dhabi, I had opportunities to see Secretary Rice several times. The first was in February 2006 when she was hosted by the newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (AbZ).  The 32-year-old sheikh, barely two weeks into the position as head of his country’s foreign affairs establishment, was coached by our ambassador, Michele Sison, on aspects of protocol and policy that proved useful to the young Emirati senior official. The meeting came off well, and the Secretary was invited by Abdullah to meet his mother, Sheikha Fatima, widow of the UAE founder. The event was notable since the Sheikha, per custom, met only with female officials.

In January 2008, Secretary Rice accompanied President George W. Bush on his official visit to the UAE and a few months later, during a period when I served as long-term Chargé, she came to Abu Dhabi to meet the UAE leadership again. During the meeting with AbZ for some reason, the arrangement called for only “the Principal plus one” to meet the Foreign Minister. As the Chargé, the plus one ended up being me, as note taker, which left then-Undersecretary Bill Burns, who also happened to be in town, standing in the hallway. Bill, my former reviewing officer in NEA, handled the situation like the magnificent professional he is and busied himself with his Blackberry.

After the meeting, I rode with Secretary Rice to the Abu Dhabi airport, just the two of us, a 20-minute drive, expecting we might do a quick review of the meetings and expected follow-on actions. That was not to be. Apparently she had enough business for the day and to my great surprise started peppering me with questions about my life in the Foreign Service and, in particular, how my daughters had liked it and what they were doing at that time. “Condi,” who always struck me as slightly shy and reserved by nature, showed the same warm personal touch I had noticed three years earlier at the condolence meeting.

In mid-February 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and after meeting King Abdullah and her counterpart, came to the port city of Jeddah, where I was in my last five months as Consul General before heading to Baghdad. Her itinerary included a meeting with the Governor of the Hijaz and Mecca, Prince Khaled Al Faisal, and a first-ever official call by a U.S. Secretary at the 57-member OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation). She would then speak at the Women’s University in Jeddah and do several press engagements — all part of the Obama administration’s outreach to the Muslim world launched in June 2009 at Cairo University.

Secretary Clinton in Jeddah, February 2010

It was notable at the official meetings, scheduled for one hour each, that both could easily have run on much longer. Her interlocutors were eager to speak to Mrs. Clinton and were beaming during the engagement. In preparation for the Women’s University town hall event, we were told that the Secretary would speak for about half an hour and would then take questions. Our instruction was that the questions would not be pre-planted, but would be whatever the mostly student audience wanted to ask, any topics that came to their minds. That’s how it went, some questions were a little off-the-wall, but the Secretary clearly enjoyed herself, sometimes throwing her head back with her famously hearty laugh — as when one student asked if she might ever consider moving to Canada to escape American politics.

Following the town hall, Secretary Clinton submitted to half a dozen back-to-back media interviews, and then we headed for the Jeddah airport as the ambassador, Jim Smith, returned separately to Riyadh.

Upon arrival at the airport at about 5 pm, it was discovered that the Secretary’s plane had a mechanical problem. While we and, most particularly, her staff assistant Huma Abedin figured out how to arrange alternative transportation back to the U.S., it fell to me to entertain the Secretary. I approached her while she was watching the sports channel in the VIP holding room, and we arranged a tour of the newly-renovated airport Royal Terminal, during which the Secretary readily complied with numerous requests by persons encountered for photo-ops. Then at about 9 p.m., our Saudi hosts determined she must be hungry and sent over huge platters of mansef lamb and rice to feed everyone present.

We asked the Secretary if she might like to dine in the special room reserved for her in the Royal Terminal or if she would rather join the larger group. She opted for the latter and sat down at one of a dozen round tables for eight with myself and her personal and consulate staff members. She took a look at the enormous platter of rice and lamb, asking what it was. I served her and she dug in, eventually asking for seconds.

Secretary Clinton at impromptu dinner of Mansef (lamb and rice); she had two plates.

The memorable aspect of the meal, aside from her obvious relish for Middle Eastern cuisine, was that — unlike many senior officials — she made absolutely no effort to hold forth during dinner while chatting informally with everyone around the table just making small talk. One soon forgot that our dinner partner that February evening in Jeddah was the most famous woman in the world. The next day a photo of my using tongs to serve Hillary Clinton the Saudi national dish appeared in Jeddah newspapers.

Several hours later, at 1 a.m., General David Petraeus flew down from Riyadh and gave her and a few members of her party a ride home in his smaller plane, offering the Secretary his cabin. At a group retirement ceremony almost two years later, I reminded the Secretary as we posed for the usual photo that we had met once before in Jeddah. There was a flash of recognition as she burst forth in a laugh, “Oh, that’s where we broke down!”

I had only one close-up with Secretary John Kerry when he came to NEA/ARP offices (where I was working as WAE) one afternoon in early 2015 to greet American FSOs who had just returned after the closing of our embassy in Yemen. With Secretary Rex Tillerson I took notes at three meetings in May and June 2017 with the Qatari Foreign Minister and ambassador before and after the June 5 “Gulf rift” with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. Tillerson struck me as solid and thoughtful, though slightly formal in manner — knowledgeable about the Gulf but still new to the business of diplomacy.

Covering the Oman desk for several months, I took notes for one meeting of Secretary Mike Pompeo and the long-serving Omani Foreign Minister, Yousef bin Alawi (YbA), in late November 2019 as the late Sultan Qaboos’ health continued to deteriorate. (The Sultan died January 10, 2020.) Pompeo was relaxed and engaging, soliciting the desk’s opinion as well as our Assistant Secretary’s on issues before and after the meeting with YbA. At its conclusion he gave me a collegial pat on the shoulder — the only time I saw him up close and personal. My first impression of Secretary Pompeo was strongly positive; one could almost imagine calling him “Mike.”

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