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Blitzer's Notebook: Behind the scenes on Clinton's Mideast trip

By Wolf Blitzer, Anchor of "The Situation Room"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer travels with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to North Africa
  • Clinton was not only tackling issues in Egypt and Tunisia, but the disaster in Japan
  • "I had a chance to watch Clinton juggle these two very different crises," Blitzer says

Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- The democracy revolution in North Africa and the Middle East started here when an unemployed college grad set himself on fire, dying in his protest of the lack of jobs in Tunisia.

It has since spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and beyond. It's still very much a work in progress. No one knows where or how it will wind up. For the people of the region, the United States and indeed for the world, the stakes are enormous, especially now that the United States will help enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

With that as background, I thought it was a good time for me to travel with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was working the fallout from all the political unrest in the Middle East, and, more urgently and immediately, the civil war in Libya, where leader Moammar Gadhafi was pushing ahead against his opposition with deadly and brutal force.

The prospect of Gadhafi's holding on to power by slaughtering thousands of fellow Libyans -- after President Obama and Clinton both had publicly said he must go -- clearly had focused her mind in recent days.

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RELATED TOPICS
  • Egypt
  • Wolf Blitzer
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Tunisia

On top of that, there were the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the need to help the Japanese government deal with the devastation and radiation fallout from the crippled nuclear reactors. There was also the need to protect tens of thousands of American diplomats, their family members, businessmen and women, tourists and U.S. troops.

Over four days, I had a chance to watch Clinton juggle these two very different crises in two very different parts of the world. What follows are just a few entries from my reporter's notebook:

SECURITY MEASURES

Traveling with Clinton, I can't help but notice that our motorcade in post-Mubarak Egypt consists of strictly armored vans. The vehicle's body is thick; you can't open the windows. In contrast, we don't have armored vehicles in Tunisia. That says to me that State Department diplomatic security personnel are less worried about the situation in Tunis. (Like Obama, Clinton has an armored car wherever she goes -- be it Cairo, Tunis or Washington).

Having said that, I'm stunned that Clinton's security detail lets her leisurely walk through Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday morning, March 16. The visit is unannounced, but the place is crowded. No one has to go through metal detectors. I easily approach her and walk with her through the crowd. She's very warmly received. She shakes hands randomly with largely friendly people screaming her name. But still, it was strange, and I was nervous for her.

SHOTS FIRED

The night before, I had been anchoring "The Situation Room" from high atop the Hilton Hotel overlooking Tahrir Square. At one point, we heard gunshots and saw hundreds of people running. Was this really a good time for the secretary of state to be touring the area?

Only weeks earlier, Tahrir Square was the scene of bloody violence and death. The shelled and burned-out buildings still clearly show the recent history. Several of my journalistic colleagues were beaten up, detained -- and worse. But now, Clinton was here -- anxious to make a statement to the Egyptian people by her mere presence. She has guts.

FULL OF ENERGY

Even her fiercest critics agree that she's tough, smart and thorough. That comes through during her stops in Paris, Cairo and Tunis. It's nonstop for her and for those of us traveling with her. Meeting after meeting after meeting. So much to do; so little time. It reminds me of the days when I used to cover her husband, President Bill Clinton.

Either she learned that ability to pack it all in from him, or he learned it from her. I covered both of them for nearly 20 years -- going back to the 1992 presidential campaign. I spent a lot of time with them in Arkansas and later covered Bill Clinton's two terms as president when I was CNN's senior White House correspondent. He never stopped. We went on day trips to Bosnia. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton now does the same. She doesn't want to waste a day. There is way too much to do.

NICE JET, BUT NO AIR FORCE ONE

On this trip, we had left Washington on Sunday night, March 13, and arrived in Paris the next morning. Her U.S. Air Force jet is configured with a bedroom for her -- complete with desk and bathroom. She has a flat-screen TV on a wall. It's a nice plane, I say to myself, but it's no Air Force One.

FUTURE PLANS: 'NO,' 'NO,' 'NO,' 'NO'

Having said that, I was surprised when she gave me four firm "No's" when I asked her whether she wanted to be secretary of state in a second Obama administration; whether she wanted to be defense secretary or vice president; and whether she wanted to run for president again in 2016. No, no, no, no. Her response was firm; but this is a free country. She can certainly change her mind.

I'll go on record: I suspect she will.

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.

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