Entry 3

Didn’t Oscar Wilde say that he always brought his diary on the train so that he would have something sensational to read?

You’ll have to forgive me for begging off the sensational. But I’m happy to share the mildly amusing.

The day starts pleasantly enough—I have an interview with Yoshi Suzuki of Jiji Press (Tokyo). He’s a sharp journalist and comes well-prepared with questions. He wants to follow up on a trip I took last month to India and the Middle East (Oman, the Emirates, and Egypt). Things go very well until he takes out a camera in the middle of an answer. I’ve never enjoyed having my picture taken. I’ll do it, just like I’ll make an appointment to see my dentist, Dr. Kafka. But Yoshi can tell I’m not enjoying myself. “You don’t like pictures?” Not wanting to lie, I try to be evasive. “Couldn’t you just use the photo you took last time?” You would think one stock photo would be sufficient. But no. Yoshi tells me a mutual friend, Jun Okumura (who runs the Japanese External Trade Organization here in New York), said the old photo didn’t suit my personality and that he should take another. I make a mental note to hunt Jun down like a small animal.

Then I turn to some client conversations.

There’s the usual China growth concerns (Are the figures real? Can they sustain it?), the upcoming transfer of power in Iraq (Will it really happen on time? Will everyone participate?), and the on-again six-party talks in North Korea (Any chance for progress? Breakdown?). One new subject surfaces repeatedly: ricin in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The calls themselves are not unexpected—every time there’s a terrorist scare, clients are asking why there haven’t been major follow-up attacks in the United States post-Sept. 11.

It’s a reasonable question. After all, by most intelligence estimates, members of active terrorist cells in the United States number in the thousands. And U.S. borders are sufficiently difficult to defend to allow would-be terrorists in.

But would-be suicide bombers don’t come into America armed; their weapons have to be supplied by local supporters. They have to coordinate their attacks, do a “dry run” to assess security of the target. All of that requires communication. And while the United States may be ineffectual at preventing would-be terrorists from getting into the country, the coordination of counterterrorist organizations (the CIA, FBI, Department of Justice, and now Homeland Security) has gone from abysmal to near-seamless. That means hypersensitivity—more orange alerts, more false positives, more duct tape—but also fewer successful terrorist attacks.

So while the diffusion of dangerous technologies, the porosity of our borders, the ease of global communication, and the declining economic growth in key Middle Eastern countries all increase the threat of global terrorism, the most vulnerable targets are primarily Western assets outside the United States and—at least for now—not those within our borders.

One of our clients, a banker based in Frankfurt, didn’t buy my take. He figured that in spite of all indications to the contrary, the absence of attacks was because Bin Laden had been killed, a fact that President Bush is unwilling to disclose until just before November elections, when it would be of maximum political benefit to him. I tried reasoning with him for a while, to no avail. Then I suggested that Mercury had also been in retrograde and that this was likely disrupting al-Qaida communications on the ground. Evidently astrology isn’t as big in Germany.

A few more assorted bits from today:

A morning chat on Middle East affairs with Abel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s foreign policy adviser. He’s credible and well-connected, and we frequently discuss U.S. and Saudi relations on Iraq and OPEC. Today we discussed the announcement by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel intends to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. (We’re skeptical.) Eventually the conversation turns social, and I ask Al-Jubeir if he would mind me using this “Diary” as an occasion to promote his availability as a handsome bachelor. (Fair warning: His travel schedule is appalling, but you could definitely bring him home to the parents). Evidently this falls outside typical protocol, but he’s game. So I offer you his photo here:

Al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to the Saudi crown prince
Al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to the Saudi crown prince

I also compared notes on Russian President Vladimir Putin with my friend Kitty Pilgrim, as she’s planning some interviews on the topic for CNN. In return, I ask her if she can include a word of my choosing in this evening’s broadcast. “Child’s play!” she tells me. We settle on “obstreperous,” as Kitty claims my preferred option, “oompa loompa,” is a stretch (and two words, anyway). I’m in meetings while she’s on air, so I’ll have to get someone to check for me. Perhaps a Slate reader …

Then there’s the personality of the week. Working with dignitaries is always a touchy business. It’s easiest when you’re already friendly with the person so that any ridiculousness caused by the handlers and organizers can be safely ignored. But even then there are problems.

This afternoon, we’re supposed to be hosting a small gathering at our offices with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. We’ll talk upcoming Russian elections, Moscow’s explosive growth, and his new book. Our analysts will push a little on whether U.S.-Russian relations are heading off the rails (given Secretary of State Powell’s trip to Moscow last Monday, it certainly seems so), and then we’ll have obligatory vodka toasts. A few clients are coming—nothing huge—so people can actually spend some time with him, but the group will be very senior. Even Rupert Murdoch, who has a significant business in Moscow, will be there. Except there’s the chance that the meeting may have to be rescheduled. …

Luzhkov is something of an institution. I remember on one occasion I met him, I think it was in 2001, at his palatial City Hall offices on Tverskaya, Moscow’s central thoroughfare. He was with a small army of advisers, and we were talking about how he was going to attract more investment into the city. Luzhkov holds up his right hand, palm up, with the tip of his thumb resting against his second and middle fingers. “Do you know what this means?” he asks. I didn’t. “This means the mayor is dead.” I’m with him so far, sort of. “Because if the mayor is alive, he should be doing this,” he says, and starts rubbing his thumb back and forth against his fingers, the international sign for lots of cash. The mayor’s gallery erupts in laughter.

I kind of want him to do the finger thing again—heck, when he shows up, I’ll ask him if he knows what that is, just to see if he remembers (or if it’s a trademark line). But Rachael Mark, our programming director, talked with his aide–de-camp at 10 last night, then with his people in Moscow past midnight, and it turns out his meeting with the D.C. mayor is running over. So we have to change the meeting to Thursday—maybe. So it goes. I’ll let you know tomorrow.