Night before Obama flies abroad, Rice bars embassies from aiding candidates
John Byrne
Published: Monday July 21, 2008

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'If they want to rent a bus, show them where they can rent a bus'

The night before presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) left for Afghanistan, Iraq and Western Europe for a tour of US bases overseas, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a cable to US missions forbidding them from holding events for presidential candidates or arrange meetings for them.

Rice issued no such cable prior to foreign excursions by presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

In a cable sent late Thursday, according to a copy leaked to the Washington Times, Rice enjoined American diplomats to treat the candidates as "members of Congress visiting in personal or semi-personal capacities," but "with additional restrictions based on rules related to political activity."

"Provide de minimis assistance to the candidate with logistical arrangements," said the cable, according to the Times. "If the campaign staff wants to rent a bus for press, tell them where they can rent a bus."

Rice didn't issue the same demands in advance of travel by Sen. McCain. McCain visited the Middle East four months ago -- but officials told the paper they didn't make similar demands because he was part of an "official congressional delegation."

"American embassies and consulates around the world are actively engaged in official visits by members of Congress and other government leaders, the paper noted. "Diplomats meet the visitors at the airport, accompany them to meetings, most of which they have arranged, and host public events for them."

Rice made an effort in her cable to distance herself from claims that her decision might have been influenced by politics.

"It is imperative that, in implementing these various requirements, we treat both major presidential candidates evenhandedly," she wrote. "Our interactions with the candidates need to be made in the context that they are also sitting U.S. senators and very important U.S. visitors with special security concerns."

But she forbid them from any attempts to "hold or arrange receptions or public events for the candidate," "arrange the candidate's meetings" or "use official funds and resources, beyond a de minimis level, to support a political trip."

Obama began his first on-the-ground inspection of Iraq since launching his bid for the White House Monday, with U.S. commanders ready to brief him on progress in a war he long opposed and Iraqi leaders wanting more details of his proposals for troop withdrawals. He arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday.

His stops in Baghdad and other areas of the country marked the second major leg of a war zone tour that opened in Afghanistan. The contrasts in tone and message were distinct.

Obama sees the battle against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan as America's most crucial fight and supports expanding troop strength to counter a sharp rise in attacks.

But Obama had stood against the Iraq invasion and now worries that an open-ended U.S. combat mission will sap military resources and focus at a time when Iraq violence has dropped to its lowest level in four years.

Meanwhile, Sen. McCain told NBC that the US was winning the war in Iraq.

"I'm glad that Senator Obama is going to get a chance for the first time to sit down with General David Petraeus and understand what the surge was all about, why it succeeded and why we are winning the war," McCain said.

McCain said the Democrat "used his opposition to the surge as a way of gaining the nomination of his party."

"I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation and he was wrong when he said that the surge wouldn't work. It has succeeded and we're winning the war," he said.

He declined to note that Sen. Obama had made a visit to Iraq before.

With wire reports.