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Embassy Row: Nothing to smile at

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Georgia is a seasoned diplomat who served in dangerous outposts such as Afghanistan and frozen ones such as the Arctic.

Richard Norland was at the White House as a member of the National Security Council and even served as deputy commandant of the National War College.

But all his skills failed him over the weekend when he tried to calm Georgia's most-bitter political rivals as they traded insults onboard a visiting U.S. warship.

The spat between President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili drew intense press coverage, which included accounts of Mr. Norland smiling as the two leaders savaged each other on the USS Bulkeley.

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, was so disturbed by the press portrayal of Mr. Norland that it issued a rare admission of diplomatic failure.

"It is regrettable that some have chosen to misinterpret Ambassador Norland's facial expression during President Saakashvili's remarks aboard the USS Bulkeley," the embassy said. "The Ambassador was smiling at the fact that his efforts to restore protocol at a representational event of this nature were ineffective."

In other words, the embassy admitted that Mr. Norland failed to stop the quarreling Georgians from spoiling what was supposed to have been a routine diplomatic affair designed to show U.S. solidarity with Georgia, which remains under threat from Russia five years after a 2008 border war that claimed 272 lives.

The bitterness runs deep between Mr. Saakashvili, who led Georgia's bloodless "Rose Revolution" in 2003, and Mr. Ivanishvili, whose net worth of $6.4 billion makes him Georgia's richest man.

Onboard the U.S. warship, Mr. Ivanishvili teased Mr. Saakashvili for adorning the lapel of his jacket with a paper poppy, a symbol of remembrance for soldiers killed in the war with Russia.

Mr. Saakashvili suggested his rival is in "cahoots with Georgia's enemy," meaning Russia. Mr. Ivanishvili accused the president of personal responsibility for the war, which began when Georgian troops deployed to two separatist regions on the border with Russia. Russian troops responded by driving out the Georgian forces.

"It is not Georgia [that is at fault]," Mr. Ivanishvili said, shaking his finger at the president. "It is you who bears the responsibility."

Mr. Saakashvili repeatedly has tried to paint Mr. Ivanishvili as a Russian puppet.

DIPLOMATIC MARRIAGE

The U.S. ambassador to Australia married his gay lover over the weekend in Washington, just days before they are due to leave for his new assignment in a country that bans homosexual marriage.

But Ambassador John Berry and his spouse, Curtis Yee, are unlikely to feel any stigma in Australia — which gave the world its first publicly recognized gay diplomatic couple 14 years ago.

Australia federal law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but other laws give gay partners equal rights to married couples. They get the same tax and social security benefits, and other laws protect homosexuals from employment discrimination.

The latest poll shows about two-thirds of Australians support changing the law to recognize gay marriage.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the leftist Labor Party has promised to introduce a bill to amend the marriage law, while his chief rival, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbot, supports the current law recognizing traditional marriage.

A parliamentary election next month could signal which way Australia will move on the issue.

The world's first openly gay diplomatic couple came from Australia. Stephen Berry served as ambassador to Denmark in 1999 and took his partner, Peter Stephens, with him to Copenhagen.

Embassy Row is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. James Morrison can be reached at jmorrison@washingtontimes.com or @EmbassyRow.

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