Monday, March 13, 2006

The High Cost of Staying Overnight


I complained some months ago about how high-ranking Bush administration figures seem almost allergic to staying overnight in countries where courtesy and hospitality are more valued than in the U.S.

Well, President Bush did stay overnight on his recent trip to Pakistan, largely because President Musharraf insisted. It gave the Secret Service fits, as Elisabeth Bumiller reports:

White House officials will not say whether Mr. Bush overruled the Secret Service in making the trip, or even if he was told not to go. But it is no secret that the service was in a state of anxiety during his time in Islamabad.

Reporters were not told that Mr. Bush would be spending the night in Pakistan until 24 hours before, which was the same day that a suicide bombing in Karachi killed an American diplomat. In Islamabad, Air Force One arrived and departed in the dark, with its running lights off and shades drawn, so that it would be less of a target for a missile attack. Once the president was on the tarmac, it was impossible to tell whether he got into a waiting motorcade — or slipped into a Blackhawk helicopter for the trip to the fortresslike American embassy, with the motorcade speeding below as a decoy.

Either way, the route of the motorcade was the site of two of four assassination attempts on Mr. Musharraf, hardly a comfort to the Secret Service. In December 2003, a large bomb detonated on a bridge 30 seconds after Mr. Musharraf's motorcade passed. Eleven days later on the same route, two suicide bombers plowed their cars into the motorcade, killing 15 people and cracking Mr. Musharraf's windshield.

Mr. Bush, on his way back to the Islamabad airport at the end of the trip, engaged in no motorcade feints — he and the first lady went by Blackhawk. A dozen Secret Service agents surrounded the helicopter as the couple disembarked and then climbed aboard Air Force One, which taxied to the end of the runway and took off in complete darkness.

I've always disagreed with people who have said the president was somehow a coward or not terribly bright. The reason is that Bush qualified on and flew jet fighters, a notoriously demanding and dangerous task regardless of whether the jet happened to be over Saigon or Plano. I would add the stay in Islamabad to this argument, even though someone else had to do the flying.

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