The official word from the State Dept. is that the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia to “ease tensions” over US foreign policy in Egypt, Syria and Iran, brought the Americans and Saudis closer together, but there are indicators that things did not go terribly well. Reportedly, King Abdulah did not dispatch “top royals” to the airport to greet Obama when he came in, nor were any sent to see him off. A state dinner that was planned, was called off, and after only a two hour talk, Obama left the king’s desert oasis outside the capital of Riyadh.
Scott Simon of KCBX Central Coast Public Radio interviewed the Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Knickmeyer, one of the reporters who was in Saudi Arabia covering the trip.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I’m Scott Simon. And President Obama is on his way home on Air Force One after a quick trip to Saudi Arabia. The president met with Saudi Arabia’s aging monarch, King Abdullah. Last night and today he met with the Saudi woman who won a U.S. State Department Women of Courage Award. We’re going to turn now to Ellen Knickmeyer, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She’s in Riyad. Thanks so much for being with us.
ELLEN KNICKMEYER: Yeah. It’s my pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: You know, the Saudis and the U.S. have had so many disagreements publicly in recent years. They thought that the U.S. was wrong not to stand by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, that the U.S. has been wrong not to arm rebels in Syria, who are trying to replace Bashar al-Assad. Did you see any signs that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have narrowed their differences this week?
KNICKMEYER: You know, that’s exactly what the Americans say happened. They say the trip brought the Americans and Saudis closer together. Saudi, the government, the royals don’t really share much of their state-level affairs with the public. So, Saudis are still trying to figure out how it went on the Saudi side. But there’s not a lot of signs. There was (not?) a particularly warm visit. For example, like, none the very top royals met President Obama at the airport to greet him or to see him off. And then (un?)like the usual state visit, there was no state dinner. It was a two-hour talk and then Obama left and he flew out today.
SIMON: So, those are considered signs that they didn’t get on famously.
KNICKMEYER: Those are early indications that some Saudis think that the government wasn’t really all that happy with the way the visit left. But it’s going in Saudi Arabia, it kind of takes a couple of weeks for the newspapers and other people who are kind of plugged in to really get some of the better word on how it went with the Saudis.
I added in italics what I think Knickmeyer meant to say – otherwise her assertions make no sense. Either she misspoke, or her words were not properly transcribed. You wouldn’t say it was a particularly warm visit, and then follow up with, “none the very top royals met President Obama at the airport to greet him or to see him off.” Also, when she said, “like the usual state visit, there was no state dinner,” It’s safe to assume she said, or meant to say “unlike the usual state dinner…”
An AP White House Correspondent reported on March 28 that the pre-scheduled state dinner had been canceled with no explanation as to why.
The decades-long alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been a pillar of security arrangements in the Middle East. But as U.S. troops have pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the kingdom’s royal family has become increasingly anxious about Obama’s positioning in the region.
Tensions reached a high point last fall after Obama decided against launching a military strike on Syria, choosing instead to back a plan to strip Syrian President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapon stockpiles. U.S. officials say the relationship has improved since then, with both sides making an effort to more closely coordinate their efforts to halt the Syrian conflict.
“We are in a better place today than we were seven months ago,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Beyond Syria, one of the king’s biggest concerns has been the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Saudis fear Iran’s nuclear program, object to Iran’s backing of the Assad government and see Tehran as having designs on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Officials said the nuclear negotiations were a primary topic of Friday’s meeting, with Obama assuring the king that the U.S. was not glossing over Tehran’s other provocations in order to get a final deal.
The president arrived in Riyadh Friday evening, then quickly boarded the presidential helicopter for a 30-minute flight to the king’s desert camp. Obama walked through a row of military guards to an ornate room featuring a massive crystal chandelier and took a seat next to the king, who appeared to be breathing with the assistance of an oxygen tank.
Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice joined Obama in the meeting, his third official visit with the king in six years. While Obama and the king were originally expected to hold a dinner following their meeting, officials said those plans had changed.
The Saudi’s aren’t the only ones who “don’t share state level affairs with the public,” as Ellen Kickmeyer put it.
On March 28, Bill Hennessy reported that the White House did not downplay the schedule change – they tried to deny that one took place at all.
The White House is now denying there was dinner scheduled. They’ve scrubbed all references from the White House web site, they’ve demanded return of printed copies of the schedule (and the state media complied). They’ve even deleted a State Department tweet about the dinner. Before the MSM finishes scrubbing their sites, I grabbed a few screens. Here’s what WaPo said this morning:
This is the official explanation an administration flack offered to the press corps, Friday evening.
Q Just a quick housekeeping thing. There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not there was supposed to be a dinner after the bilateral meeting. Can you clear that up? The State Department actually tweeted out that there was going to be a dinner.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, no — there was some discussion of a dinner before we left for the trip, but several days ago, just for logistic reasons and the leaders’ schedules, the decision was made to just have it be a bilat — you know, we were getting in late. So I wouldn’t read anything into it other than the fact that that decision was made several days ago. That’s why it wasn’t on the schedule that we put out last night, the public schedule for today.
They were able to have an over two-hour meeting, so they were fully able to cover a lot of ground. The King was very gracious for this hospitality.
But according to Hennessy, Fox News reported that the State Department’s tweet about the dinner posted Friday was deleted after the White House announced that there was no dinner planned between Abdullah and Obama.
Multiple news sources reported all throughout Friday that there would be a dinner. If the event had been cancelled “several days” before, it should have been removed from the schedule sooner than the previous night, and an announcement should have been made of the schedule change.
So what we’re left to decide is the usual question that has vexed conservatives throughout the age of Obama. Was the Regime corrupt (because they lied about what happened), or incompetent (because they failed to inform reporters of an important schedule change.)
So what say you? Corrupt or incompetent? Or both?