Monday, November 19, 2007

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And I thought I was disorganized

In the spring, I'm going to be running a conference at the Fletcher School on the future of policy planning. This means I'm going to have to flex my administrative muscles, which are about as well-developed as my pectorals. Which is to say, I'm a bit disorganized.

Of course, if the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler is correct, I can always console myself that my conference can't possibly be as badly planned as the upcoming Annapolis meeting on the Middle East:

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Bush's presidency.

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for other countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so it wants a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinians.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing."

Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."....

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Much Too Promised Land," an account of U.S. efforts to foster peace, said invitations were issued two weeks before the last major international conference on the Middle East, held in Madrid in 1991. He said invitations were issued weeks ahead of another Middle East negotiation session, the 1998 Wye River conference in Maryland.

"I'm not sure any of that speaks to whether it is a consequential event or not," Miller said, suggesting that the proposed talks in Annapolis are mostly necessary to let the world know that substantive peace talks are already taking place.

Question to readers -- if you're going to go through the trouble of assembling such a large collection of officials in Annapolis, isn't it worthwhile to have them stay for more than a day? Or is this a case where more discussion would not necessarily equal more fruitful discussion?

UPDATE: The AP now reports that invitations will be sent out seven days in advance:

As the U.S. finalizes preparations, the State Department will start sending out invitations overnight for the event, U.S. officials said Monday. The conference will be held in Annapolis on Nov. 27 in between meetings in Washington. The main guests are the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Bush administration also is inviting Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and key international players in the peace process, the officials said.

The invitations are to be sent by diplomatic cable to U.S. embassies in the countries concerned, with instructions to Washington's ambassadors to present them to their host governments' foreign ministries, the officials said. They will ask that each nation send its highest-ranking appropriate official to Annapolis.

The White House has said President Bush will attend at least part of the event chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also will host a pre-conference dinner at the State Department on Nov. 26, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

posted by Dan on 11.19.07 at 10:29 PM


Kessler, I think, uses the verb "plan" in the sense of "intend." Bush and Rice intend to open a Mideast meeting in Annapolis; I planned years ago to start dating Meg Ryan. Same thing. Well, almost the same thing. There actually are governments who want to attend an American-sponsored Mideast conference.

This should make the actual planning of the Annapolis meeting much easier, since the biggest hurdle most meeting organizers face is getting people to show up. However, getting people to show up is the biggest problem for most meeting organizers because most meeting organizers know what they want from the meeting before they ask people, or governments, to attend. If you don't know that, you have an even bigger problem.

Bush and Rice appear to sort of know what they want -- a meeting in Annapolis that makes it look like they are putting a peace process for the Mideast back on track and possibly even does so, without running any risks or upsetting any of Israel's most passionate supporters in the United States. Calling it the first round of substantive talks is a nice use of language, since victory can be declared if substance is discussed at all and anything short of complete disaster can be excused because, after all, this was only the first round.

This is not precisely what everyone else wants from the Annapolis meeting. The Israelis want international acknowledgment that they are trying, without actually changing any of the policies -- notably on settlements on the West Bank -- most offensive to Palestinians. The Palestinians want the United States and allied states to force Israeli compliance with a detailed list of steps as a means of demonstrating to their badly divided constituency that the political faction engaged in negotiating with Israel is the one Palestinians should support. Everyone else badly wants to see some kind of movement; physical movement of Israel and the Palestinians to a location just off the Ross Ice Shelf would be ideal, but movement of the two sides' negotiating positions would do. Bush and Rice can't deliver any of these things.

They could, if they wanted to, make a start, by acknowledging frankly and in public what everyone knows -- about how unhelpful West Bank settlements and their expansion are, about how divided the Palestinians are, about how the Israeli security wall can't be taken down without a renewal of suicide bombings and can't be continued without being used as a tool to disrupt Palestinian communities and appropriate Palestinian land, and lastly about the several conditions of a final peace settlement that everyone knows will have to be agreed to eventually, if a peace settlement is ever to be reached at all.

This would look like a pretty limited step compared to Madrid, Oslo and all the rest of the pre-intifada meetings in the last decade and where they seemed to be pointing. Sadly, it also seems an unlikely step, given that Rice in particular has a long record of describing the Mideast in absurdly optimistic language. What Annapolis looks like to me is a meeting called because it seemed to the White House that some kind of Mideast meeting needed to be called. Everything beyond that is just being made up as the meeting date approaches.

I hope Dan's skill as a meeting organizer promises better things for his policy planning event.

posted by: Zathras on 11.19.07 at 10:29 PM [permalink]

Painted into their own corner by offering a 'peace conference' without a plan during the sunset of their eight years in charge, isn't the hazard for this Annapolis conference that the U.S. administration will feel especially anxious about producing results, and then do or say something precipitous?

posted by: a Duoist on 11.19.07 at 10:29 PM [permalink]

I'm sure everyone will enjoy the crabs, anyway. Note to Dr. Drezner the key to a successful event is simple--don't run out of coffee and serve lots of food. Catered Chinese is great because there is always lots of it and it does not cost very much. Having grown up around academics, I understand the connection between them and free food (and drink). Appeal to their baser instincts and your conference will be raved about for years.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 11.19.07 at 10:29 PM [permalink]

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