BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for March 2009

Obama's Afghan plan: comprehensive and campaigning

Mark Urban | 21:51 UK time, Friday, 27 March 2009

The long awaited Obama blueprint form Afghanistan has appeared. It's certainly comprehensive - acknowledging the importance of 'non-kinetic' efforts such as aid, reconciliation talks with 'reconcilable' Taleban, and training Afghan troops. It also gives a regional focus to the effort, with much emphasis on Pakistan, and plans for the formation of a diplomatic Contact Group to involve important neigbours including Iran, India or the Central Asian republics in find a solution to the problem.

It begs though some questions both about the degree to which he wants US and other Nato forces to fight the Taleban and about his whether President Obama's approach to political problems needs to be quite so partisan.

He defined his country's central aim as: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you".

Under the rubric of defeating al-Qaeda you could justify largely withdrawing from rural Afghanistan, since you won't find many al-Qaeda types there. The logic for continuing the fight in places like Helmand, the President's advisers might argue, lies in his phrase about preventing militant Islamists from regaining power in Afghanistan. Even so, one could easily argue that such an objective does not necessarily justify largescale involvement of Nato troops in Afghan counter insurgency operations. Elsewhere in the speech however the president said, "we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban's gains". This seems to imply a much larger involvement in counter-insurgency. We will wait to see how commanders on the ground resolve this dilemma.

The other curious aspect about this announcement was the sense in which it still sounded a bit like a campaign speech rather than that of a Commander in Chief. The centrality of al-Qaeda and 9/11 in the early part of his argument sounded like an attempt to convince his Democratic base that the struggle is still worth it. The emphasis on turning over more of the fight to Afghan forces has already led some to dub this announcement an 'exit strategy'.

The president also appeared to blame the Bush administration a couple of times for neglecting Afghanistan in favour of Iraq. Today he announcemed that 4,000 troops would be sent to train bigger Afghan security forces but that "those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq". This sounded like a criticism of President Bush for taking his eye off the ball, yet it is hard to believe that the US armed services could not have provided a training mission of that size if local commanders had asked for it, say one year ago.

When Irish eyes are smiling

Mark Urban | 16:18 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009

President Barack Obama and Irish Prime Minister Brian CowenLooking at the footage of Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's visit to the White House, I was struck with how lavish the welcome was compared to that afforded to Gordon Brown.

Mr Cowen got the full 'press conference with national flags' that neither Mr Brown or his Japanese counterpart received during their trips, President Obama wore a green tie and even the White House fountain got a green flush.

As for a quiet chat in the Oval Office, this week that honour went to Northern Ireland's First Minister and Deputy First Minister, namely Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. Well, at least the British Embassy can reflect with pride that our PM beat Sinn Fein to the comfy chairs... just.

"Irish signatures are on our founding documents; Irish blood has been spilled on our battlefields; Irish sweat went into building our greatest cities", said the president.

Vice President Joe Biden meanwhile reminded his audience that British troops had evacuated Boston on 17th March 1776. This gag produced a great deal of laughter - except I imagine at the British embassy. Vice President Biden, we should remember, is spearheading the administration's efforts to improve America's image in the world.

What all of this tells us of course is that Saint Patrick's Day is a huge deal in the US. Some estimates put at 40m the number of Americans claiming Irish ancestry. No president can ignore or snub the Irish at that particular time.

It does though remind us once more of the UK's place in the scheme of things, and how pointless references to the UK/US special relationship sometimes are.

Hillary has been quick off the blocks

Mark Urban | 17:53 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov WASHINGTON - Hillary Clinton has been jetting about the world successfully making her presence felt. She's actually back here today, seeing the Indian Foreign Minister in her office at the State Department. It's a key economic and security relationship for the US.

She's been racking up the air miles since taking over the USA's chief diplomat, visiting the Far East, Middle East and Nato. The key thing about this globe trotting is that is hasn't just consisted of photo ops. She has been taking the lead to restore good relations with Russia, symbolically 're-setting' the relationship at a meeting with counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week. She's also sent important signals in the Middle East; on the humanitarian situation in Gaza or relations with Syria, and extended a hand to Iran, inviting them to a meeting on Afghanistan.

When President Obama was inaugurated I expected the economic crisis to limit his impact on foreign affairs - and this has proven to be the case, so far at least. But what Ms Clinton has shown, is that his plans to devolve the day to day running of foreign policy to others have got off to a good start.

Some of us wondered how Ms Clinton was supposed to fit in with National Security advisor General James Jones, the 'super envoys' appointed to various parts of the world, or indeed the Vice President, Joe Biden, who has been given the job of overseeing foreign policy. Was the new president setting the scene for a struggle akin to that which Mssrs Rumsfeld, Powell and Cheney waged during his predecessor's first term?

It seems that the Obama team is able to get along rather better. Ms Clinton's initiatives on Russia or the Middle East have constituted significant steps that could not have been taken without her president's authority. He has delegated to a political beast big enough to get out into the global jungle, and she is relishing it. One of the US breakfast TV shows ran a segment this morning of the Secretary of State on Turkish television talking about how she likes going for long walks with her husband and misses being able to sit by herself in a café. It was harmless trivia, but just as we have seen some major politicians diminished when they are separated from the well of power, so Ms Clinton seems rejuvenated by being allowed to draw its waters once more.

Of course it is early days - the Obama administration has yet to face a severe test overseas. It may be that they will be at one another's throats once the pressure ratchets up. But the early indications are that the Secretary of State has wielded her office so effectively that would-be Washington rivals have been left in the starting blocks.

Business as usual after Brown's visit

Mark Urban | 16:05 UK time, Thursday, 5 March 2009

WASHINGTON DC - The waters have closed here after Gordon Brown's visit, it is business as usual, which these days in the US means businesses going down the tubes.

The insurance giant AIG is being bailed out again and newspapers report that companies seeking to avoid bankruptcy have flooded banks with requests for a stay of execution, as promised by one of the president's new schemes.

In the midst of all this I am struck by two bits of wishful thinking I have heard in recent months: that the recession will not deflect the new Administration from foreign affairs and that the UK/US 'special relationship' is as special as it ever was.

Both protestations are, in my view, nonsense.

It is, of course, true that Hillary Clinton has been busily touring the Middle East this week, there is an interesting opening towards Russia going on, Mr Brown has visited DC and so on.

American diplomacy has not gone into hibernation. But the attention of Americans, be they legislators, pundits or office workers is overwhelmingly focussed on the economy.

It is by his ability to answer their concerns that the president will be judged, and not, alas, by any confidence that he could beat Gordon Brown at tennis or netball.

And what of the special relationship? Let us remember that when the phrase was first coined by Churchill it was meant to mean, essentially, the US and UK getting together to run the world.

Britain, at the time of the Second World War, had millions of men and women in the struggle, had broken the German Ultra codes and was passing vital nuclear research to the US. Talk about a valuable ally...

Bit by bit this 'specialness' seeped away during the Cold War.

Britain, it's true shared the nuclear 'burden', but with vastly fewer warheads than the Americans, and remained part of the worldwide signals intelligence gathering system run by the English speaking powers, but increasingly as the junior partner.

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