Sometimes press conferences involve as much diplomacy as, well, diplomacy. Before British Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai emerged from their London bilateral at lunchtime today, a Downing Street official told assembled journalists that a tight schedule permitted only two questions to the leaders. This did not trouble the press pack as much as one might suppose: there were, after all, just two questions anyone wanted to ask, and they related at best tangentially to Afghanistan. The official was visibly perturbed to realize that Karzai might be ignored as the media clamored for clarification of Britain’s policy on Libya and how it would be possible for the U.K. to become involved in yet another war as defense cuts further diminish its already overstretched military capacity. “Please could you ask Karzai a question?” he implored.
In the event, it was Karzai who produced the memorable soundbite of the presser. Standing at a lectern emblazoned with the chivalric motto honi soit qui mal y pense—that means something along the lines of “shame to him who thinks evil of it,” and might more fluently be expressed as “you’re as bad as your own thoughts permit”—Karzai listened attentively as Cameron explained how the current program of cuts to Britain’s armed services were actually part of a modernization process that would leave the country with “one of the most capable, flexible, adaptable air forces anywhere in the world” and similarly vibrant sea and land capabilities. There will be 17,000 job losses across the three services and some of the craft deployed to evacuate British citizens from Libya are just about to be decommissioned. As the Prime Minister listed the equipment Britain still possesses, Karzai smiled. “I hope the old ones are given to us as you replace them with the new ones,” he said.