On November 1, Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Uzbekistan as part of a whirlwind five country tour through Central Asia.
A Secretary’s visit to an embassy or consulate is a pretty big deal. It’s like your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss has come calling. And the amount of preparation that goes into an “S visit” would probably surprise even a seasoned officer that hadn’t yet experienced one.
The level of detail and support required – both from the field and from Washington – is truly astonishing. Everyone in the mission (and especially at small posts) gets pulled in to help coordinate. No job is too small, and the plans have to adjust as things evolve, over and over.
Yet, no one truly minds the work or dreads such an endeavor, because it is so exciting and you know that in those moments, the whole State Department is looking at your team. (Well, no, they’re looking at the Secretary of State – unless you screw up!) Even your ambassador becomes “staff” when the Secretary is in town. Especially for a first tour officer like myself, a visit from the Secretary of State is an honor, a stroke of fortune and a wonderful learning experience all at the same time.
So when we at the embassy heard that the Secretary might be coming to Uzbekistan, no one knew for sure when, or for sure if. So we tried not to get our hopes up too high. Then unfortunately he broke his leg during the late spring bicycling in the French Alps, and had many others priorities to juggle as he recuperated, so I continued on with work as usual and didn’t think much of it.
And then one day, suddenly, plans were solidified. My recent vacation proposal for a Prague/Sarajevo trip I had planned was sitting on my boss’s desk when he gave me the good news. “You didn’t buy plane tickets yet, did you?” he grinned.
Secretary Kerry was really coming, but the visit had a twist: he was coming not to the embassy in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent, but to Samarkand, the hometown of the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, located more than three hours away by car.
And not only that, but the Secretary would meet with both the Uzbek president, and foreign ministers from five Central Asian countries: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan. This meeting would come to be known as the C5+1. The visit would last only a day; the delegation would arrive in the morning, and depart before dark.
Many wheels began to turn as embassy colleagues and the Secretary’s advance team, arriving more than a week before Kerry and his senior delegation, planned every detail of the visit from top to bottom.
We had to essentially set up a complete operating base in Samarkand, and we needed everything. Ops. Facilities. IT. Comms. Cashiering. Accommodation. Office supplies. Vehicles and drivers. Flights and trains to get everyone out there and back. You name it – we needed it! We had to recreate another mini-embassy inside a hotel. I just can’t tell you how hard our Management section worked to anticipate needs and make all of that happen. It was stupendous.
We also had to temporarily close the consular section to interviews, and shift some of our officer coverage around to make sure we could still handle our American Citizen Services obligations. Our local Uzbek colleagues probably were laughing at how we hopped around the week beforehand like our shoes were on fire.
I was assigned early on in the planning by our ambassador to serve as control officer for the Secretary’s senior delegation, including one Assistant Secretary and two Deputy Assistant Secretaries, among others, which was a great vote of confidence.
Two days before the visit, I headed to Samarkand by train. When I arrived, I was also asked to be a co-site officer for the Secretary’s lunch, which would be hosted in the banquet hall at President Karimov’s beautiful presidential compound. Surprise! I set about doing as much advance and prep as I could, read the site scenario for the first time ever, and went to bed early.
The next morning dawned foggy, and literally almost freezing. Embassy teams made their way in different directions – to the airport, or to various sections of the compound.
I went with my co-site officer to check out the banquet hall set up for the lunch.
The banquet hall awaiting guests:
We were ready for things we could hardly imagine. Or so we thought. As it turned out, the Secretary’s plane had difficulty landing due to weather. For nearly an hour and a half, several of waited in a small control room, on the edge of our seats as the minutes ticked by and our timeline for the day went more and more out the window.
The plane circled again and again. It didn’t look good. The overall control officer and I started gaming out scenarios. What if they don’t land? What if they land…and get stuck, and have to stay the night? Suddenly my biggest job was to find someone important a phone charger – stat!
Finally, we received word – the plane landed. They were coming! Frantically, a missed meeting was combined with the lunch. The whole banquet hall area went into overdrive to rearrange seating.
Notetakers and control officers and site officers for each country hustled like mad to adjust to the new schedule, all while trying to appear calm and collected and capable.
I was beyond lucky to eventually enjoy the lunch – which had about nine courses. I think I ate two bites of each course until the fifth course, I was so busy popping discreetly up and down to check on my principals and surreptitiously take geeky photos of my consular colleague, drafted into notetaker service at the Secretary’s table.
Dream first course:
The most exciting part of the afternoon for me personally was when I spent fifteen minutes blocking the door of a freight elevator in a hotel so the Secretary, his bodyguards, our ambassador, and other senior members of the visiting delegation could ride up the back way to a meeting.
Hysterically, only seconds before, a hotel kitchen staff with a stack of dishes tried to enter the freight elevator and I unceremoniously blocked the doorway and announced in Russian, “Please, not now!” When I saw the Secretary, I said, “Sir,” and motioned for him to enter. Geez, the things they pay me to do!!
That night, after we received word that the Secretary’s plane had safely lifted off and was enroute to its next destination, our ambassador thanked everyone profusely for their hard work. Then began that all too well-known kind of celebrating know as a “wheels-up” party!
It will be years until I can say that I am a seasoned officer, but at least I got my first S visit under my belt in the first six months of my first tour!