The call came in the middle of the night. For each member of the President’s entourage, the message was the same, delivered with military precision: “Get up, get dressed, the President is leaving in one hour.” Hotel rooms throughout Phnom Penh subsequently echoed with a chorus of crisp cotton sheets being whipped back, the sound of hasty showers being taken and suitcases zipped up.
Leaving? But they had just arrived at the ASEAN summit. There were so many issues yet to be resolved: territorial disputes in the South China Sea, trade agreements, the way forward on energy security. The President had seemed cool and relaxed after arriving in Cambodia, sitting back in his chair in a pose that his aides knew as symbolic of his “listening” mode. Yet, some mused as they dried their hair and stuffed the remainder of their possessions into the outside pockets of garment bags, the gaze was somehow darker, more thoughtful. The wheels were turning. But in what direction?
Minivans parked outside of hotels and bleary eyed staff piled into them, heaving their overladen cases into the back. They wore suits, they sweated: even at night, the heat and humidity were oppressive, the warmth rose in waves from the ground. The scents of tropical plants, asphalt, diesel and unwashed bodies predominated. Night sounds of insects surrounded them; there was the incessant dull roar of Phnom Penh’s traffic.
Leaving? Why? What for? Some fortunate souls had managed to grab a cup of coffee from room service; they had been poured into cardboard cups and drunk with more desperation than relish. Complimentary packets of non-dairy creamer, which had been hastily stirred in, made the drink curdle in their stomachs. It was an honour to serve, they reminded themselves, but sometimes it felt more like a duty than a privilege.
The vans proceeded through the darkness, evading potholes and other drivers as best they could en route to the airport. The aides barely spoke to each other, most were still halfway locked in a dream state and hoping for respite once on Air Force One. OK, it wasn’t a bed, but once in their seats, they could hope for a few hours more of precious rest.
Where are we going, many thought, are we headed home? Has there been some sort of emergency?
The vans then pulled up onto the airport tarmac; in contrast to the somewhat makeshift airfield, Air Force One looked magnificent and proud, its blue and white hull gleaming in the dim light. Lights were already on in the windows; yes, the President was aboard.
Gazing through his window located towards the front of the plane, President Obama saw the vans arrive.
“Good,” he said, “the rest of the staff are here.” He rolled up the white sleeves of his dress shirt and loosened his blue silk tie.
He turned to his flying companion, Hillary Clinton. Her blue eyes were clear, her blonde hair pulled back into a tight hairstyle. Her navy blue jacket was neatly pressed. She held a Blackberry in her right hand; its screen was lit up from recent use. The President could detect no scent of perfume from her, just a hint of soap.
“Are you sure about this, Mr. President?” she asked.
Obama paused. “About as sure as I am of anything,” he replied.
She pursed her dark pink lips. “Going to Cairo, however…now…”
They had been over this a few times. The president sat back and clasped his hands, nearly achieving a gesture of prayer. For a brief moment, he thought of being back in Chicago, attending church on a Sunday morning and asking for God’s help; he recalled sitting in a polished wooden pew, the musty scent of old Bibles and fresh flowers in the air, and he could almost hear the choir preparing to sing the first notes of a hymn, a low growl of music rising from their throats.
The thought passed. He was still here with his disciplined Secretary of State observing him intently. She would be leaving office soon; he could see that she was relishing the prospect. Make up, no matter how well applied, could not hide the bags under her eyes, a symptom of fatigue piled upon fatigue. But he needed her. She knew Netanyahu and could speak to him on a first name basis; the President had problems even starting up a conversation with the man. The last time they’d spoke he’d said, “Bibi, you need to stop building settlements in the West Bank now, you’ll provoke a backlash.”
They were in the Oval Office, seated in the two wing chairs standing on either side of the fireplace; the reporters had left after the two leaders had expressed the usual platitudes about the special relationship between America and Israel. The President, finally, could be blunt. The chairs were parallel, they didn’t face each other directly. In reply to Obama’s warning, Bibi turned his head and looked directly at the President; the gaze was hard though not unintelligent. “No,” Netanyahu replied. This was not a refusal which could be reasoned with; Bibi’s world was painted in shades of black and white, Obama mused, you were either with him or against him. At that moment, he’d decided that Obama was against him.
So, Bibi had embraced Mitt Romney upon his visit to Jerusalem. The President was aware that Bibi had used every last bit of influence he had with America’s Jewish lobby to try and get the Republican elected. He’d gambled and lost; his response had been to double down. A folded up Washington Post that rested on the glass coffee table positioned between the President and Secretary of State showed a front page picture of a Palestinian man, in tears, holding the lifeless form of his dead small son.
No, no, this had to stop. To be the President means that one can do things, Obama thought, that was why I wanted the job. Most powerful man in the world, supposedly; but what is the pomp of the office but a hollow relic if it cannot save lives? The Marine band can play “Hail to the Chief”, the warm tones of its brass instruments hanging perfectly in the air on a warm Spring afternoon as cherry blossoms fall on the green grass of the Mall, but the song is entirely ephemeral, a whimsy, if the Chief has done little that merits the anthem.
“Your trip is going to be a security headache,” Hillary reminded him, snapping the President back into focus. Her brow was furrowed.
Obama nodded. The Secret Service had gone ballistic, well, as ballistic as any agency so devoted yet devoid of emotion could be. They had expressed “concerns” over the “threat vectors”. He’d understood; he’d expressed the service’s fears to President Morsi of Egypt when they’d spoken the previous day.
Morsi had been surprised to hear from him, Obama recalled.
“Yes, Mr. President,” Morsi’s translator had said in a clipped English accent upon picking up the phone.
“President Morsi,” Obama had said, “I would like to come visit you in Cairo and help faciltate the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian delegation. I would also like to see conditions in the Gaza Strip for myself.”
The translator turned Obama’s words into Arabic. Silence.
Morsi replied: hesitantly at first, Obama thought. The translator followed after him, “That’s very generous of you, Mr. President. We’ll be delighted to welcome you.”
The plan was, and Hillary had worked out the details, was to go to Cairo, and then meet with President Morsi. Then he’d visit both the Palestinian and Israeli delegations which were there and impress upon them the necessity of peace and attempt to facilitate the negotiations. Then, he would go to Gaza himself. If all went well, he would then follow this up with a trip to Jerusalem; Hillary thought it wise that Netaynahu was not informed in advance.
“You want to catch him off guard,” she explained. The President had understood: if Netanyahu had the opportunity to make his mind up about how to react to a particular event, he’d stick to it come what may.
“Are you certain about going to Gaza?” Hillary queried again. Obama nodded.
If the President was going to make the American public understand the need for peace, he would have to drag the American media in behind him. He knew all too well that there were far too many Americans who sat in homes in Dallas and Tucson and Salt Lake City who still lived with their mental pictures framed by the previous Administration. The Palestinians were Muslims, the Israelis said they were terrorists; pictures of Palestinians celebrating the World Trade Centre attack had streamed into American homes on September 11. They’re enemies, the Fox News watching public had reasoned: blow them up. The mainstream media didn’t care to show the parents and children huddled in dusty cellars during sleepless nights as bombs exploded and the earth trembled. Leave that to Al Jazeera, the media thought, we have prejudices for which we must cater so that we continue to accrue advertising revenues from Boeing and Coca Cola.
Perhaps, Obama thought, if he wandered amidst the wreckage, wiped the dust from his forehead and talked with workers from the Red Cross while the cameras rolled, maybe, just maybe, the complexity of real life would filter back across the ocean. Perhaps the Palestinians would be seen as they were: a people who had been yanked out by the roots, who were finding any remaining patch of earth in which to plant themselves hard to come by. Compromise, reason, rationality were the only way forward.
But then again, the Republicans could just accuse him of pandering to America’s enemies and blast him to pieces again on Fox News.
He sighed. An Air Force colonel, wearing a blue uniform with crisp seams entered in. His grey eyes were focused, emotionless.
“Mr. President,” the colonel said, “We’re ready to depart.”
The President nodded. He cast another gaze out the window; the vans had departed back into the night. By the time Phnom Penh awoke to its orange and azure dawn, he’d be gone; he had left handwritten messages for the other ASEAN leaders apologising for leaving in haste. He hoped they would understand; he was certain they would.
“Let’s go,” Obama said. The colonel nodded and departed.
Hillary looked at him; the President knew her well enough to read her thoughts, namely, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I hope so too”, he thought back. He settled into his seat and shut his eyes. All this was hanging around one word: “if”. He had mused about this with Hillary and Michelle, “If I go,” he had asked, “will I make a difference?” They weren’t sure. All he knew was that those bent on war seemed irredeemably so; the only person who had even a glimmer of a chance of moving them was himself. If he could advise, cajole, persuade, and even threaten successfully, maybe, worse than what had already happened could be prevented.
He swallowed hard. The plane began to taxi. Soon the engines would accelerate and Air Force One would launch into the darkness. He too would be flinging himself into the void. All in vain? He’d soon find out.