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U.S. envoy in angry fight with Turkish ambassador, right outside Clinton meeting

U.S. Ambassador to Doha Joseph LeBaron got into an angry — and by some accounts physical — altercation with Turkish Ambassador Fuat Tanlay in Qatar last weekend, when LeBaron tried to cut off the late-running meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan According to two U.S. government officials who ...

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General David Petraeus, top commander of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, walks with US ambassador to Qatar Joseph LeBaron (L) as they arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha on February 15, 2009. The forum will focus on ways to improve relations between the Islamic world and the administration of US President Barack Obama. AFP PHOTO/KARIM JAAFAR (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Ambassador to Doha Joseph LeBaron got into an angry -- and by some accounts physical -- altercation with Turkish Ambassador Fuat Tanlay in Qatar last weekend, when LeBaron tried to cut off the late-running meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

According to two U.S. government officials who were direct eyewitnesses of the incident, LeBaron became frustrated when the Clinton-Erdogan meeting, which had been slated for 20 minutes, ran past an hour. That was making Clinton late for her next meeting with Qatari Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani .

LeBaron, after getting into a yelling match with Tanlay, who wanted to let the leaders go on, banged on the door leading to the hallway down which the meeting was taking place, these officials said. After that, the accounts become murkier, with one official saying that LeBaron was physically restrained and escorted from the area and the other claiming that there was no physical contact and LeBaron left of his own accord.

U.S. Ambassador to Doha Joseph LeBaron got into an angry — and by some accounts physical — altercation with Turkish Ambassador Fuat Tanlay in Qatar last weekend, when LeBaron tried to cut off the late-running meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

According to two U.S. government officials who were direct eyewitnesses of the incident, LeBaron became frustrated when the Clinton-Erdogan meeting, which had been slated for 20 minutes, ran past an hour. That was making Clinton late for her next meeting with Qatari Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani .

LeBaron, after getting into a yelling match with Tanlay, who wanted to let the leaders go on, banged on the door leading to the hallway down which the meeting was taking place, these officials said. After that, the accounts become murkier, with one official saying that LeBaron was physically restrained and escorted from the area and the other claiming that there was no physical contact and LeBaron left of his own accord.

State Department Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley was an eyewitness and gave his account to The Cable.

“There was a sharp exchange of words, after which the ambassador banged on the door that led to the meeting location,” Crowley told The Cable. “I recall that he was pulled away from the door, at which time several of us interceded.”

Another U.S. government official in the room at the time, speaking to The Cable on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the bulk of Crowley’s account but disputed a couple of points. This official said that there was no physical contact and while LeBaron did bang loudly on the door to get Clinton’s attention, that was before his words with Tanlay. Also, he was not pulled away from the door or “restrained in any way,” this official said, noting that the LeBaron-Tanlay exchange was in Turkish.

Both Clinton and Turkish officials apologized to the Qatari Amir for the late start of that meeting and the Amir was gracious about it, even unexpectedly attending Clinton’s speech to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, Crowley said.

The American accounts conflict with the stories in the Turkish press, which describe a much more violent fight between the two diplomats. In the wake of the incident, Turkish newspapers have been running attacks against LeBaron for days, the official said.

Experts see the incident as both a sign of well-known Turkish sensitivity to matters of protocol but also a symbol of underlying tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”For Turks, this whole business o f protocol is just as important as substance. This is something the U.S. doesn’t seem to understand,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based Turkey analyst. In one example, a man was prosecuted in Turkey for chewing gum at government ceremony, Jenkins said. (Those charges were later dropped, but still)

The Turks once objected to a foreign official not wearing a necktie at a meeting, Jenkins said. In another incident, the Turkish government was outraged when the United Kingdom didn’t provide a police escort at the airport for a visiting Turkish official.

At last year’s Davos meeting, Erdogan got into a well-publicized spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Jenkins said that Erdogan was particularly upset that moderator David Ignatius touched his arm during the back and forth, another violation of protocol.

Meanwhile, inside the meeting, the issues being discussed between Clinton and Erdogan were substantial. The U.S. and Turkey are far apart on new sanctions toward Iran and the U.S. needs not only Turkey’s vote at the UN Security Council, but Turkey’s help in implementing any new sanctions, as well.

“Erdogan genuinely believes the Iranians are not planning to produce a nuclear weapon,” Jenkins said. “The problem is he is about the only person in the world that believes that now. The two sides are very far apart on this issue now.”

UPDATE: LeBaron sent The Cable this on the record response, which directly contradicts the accounts told by Crowley and in the Turkish press. “The facts portrayed in the article do not reflect what actually transpired; no violence or physical contact occurred, for example. What was important was that Secretary of State Clinton was able to have a series of constructive talks in Doha, meeting with Qatar’s head of state, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and with other top officials such as Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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