BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for October 2009

Endemic EU backroom dealing could scupper Blair

Mark Urban | 18:42 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009


BRUSSELS: The prospect of the Lisbon Treaty coming into force has touched off a flurry of back room negotiations here.
None of it is going to boost the image of the European Union as a democratic, accountable, international body.

Next week's probable ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Republic (the last it needs to come into force) has produced a classic Brussels dog fight over who should get the plum jobs of president and high representative for foreign and defence policy.

The treaty is meant to streamline the larger union and gets its process working better, but the fact that so many countries have felt unable to put their endorsement of the treaty to a popular vote hardly boosts the sense that Europeans are longing for it.

In its previous incarnation, the constitution, it was demolished by referendum "No" votes in France and the Netherlands.

So now many of the features of the constitution, such as those two new top jobs, have come in via the treaty, the diplomats are engaged in much febrile discussion on the margins of this summit.

Ripples from the sidelines

The people running this occasion would like it to concentrate on the issues of climate change and saving European jobs.


But now that former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is being mooted by some for the president's job, and Foreign Secretary David Miliband for that of high representative, there is only one story as far as the British press is concerned.

Certainly many journalists from other countries would rather cover the business of this summit straight, but the ripples emerging from meetings on the sidelines of the European socialists and centre right groups - in which each bloc has already started the horse trading needed to come up with a unified candidate - means that almost everyone here is now showing interest in this issue.

Some suggest that the centre-right bloc, as the dominant one in European politics at the moment, will expect to call the shots on the president's appointment and the socialists, as their consolation prize, on the high representative.

British hopes

This is clearly better news for Mr Miliband than Mr Blair, for one thing is clear, Britain cannot expect to get both plumb jobs.

So Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has enthusiastically backed Mr Blair's candidacy, did not look too pleased about it this afternoon when rumours leaked out about the apparent popularity of Mr Miliband in the socialists' group.

Mr Brown denied that his foreign secretary had been put on any kind of shortlist for the high representative's job.

Even Mr Miliband has denied he is a candidate. If he were to show enthusiasm for it, Mr Blair could easily be undermined in his quest for the bigger job.

All of this though simply strengthens the impression that the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will not usher in some great change in the way the Union does business.

Rather the back room dealing that has typified the Brussels process is continuing in grand style and that, incidentally, may well finish off Mr Blair's chances of gaining the president's post.

A diplomatic breakthrough with Iran?

Mark Urban | 16:13 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009

Could the long struggle between Iran and the international community almost be over? The issue of the country's nuclear plants has been rumbling away for six years now, but some people close to talks in Vienna are suggesting that a deal might be ready by tomorrow.

The idea is not a new one. Under the proposed agreement, Iran would send most of its enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be boosted to a higher level and made into fuel rods. The rods would then be returned to Iran unsuitable for use in a weapons programme.

Not only would such a deal sooth foreign concerns about what was happening to Iran's uranium but it would also be a good commercial project for Russia. The returns appear so attractive that France has been insisting that it too be part of the re-processing scheme.

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The International Atomic Energy Authority is insisting that a deal be done by Friday. If it happens, tensions could be considerable reduced but there will still be some important outstanding issues.

IAEA inspectors are due to travel on Sunday to the facility near Qom which the US/UK and France alleged last month is a secret nuclear enrichment facility that has been hidden from international supervision. They are hoping to find out whether the Qom plant is associated with other undeclared facilities. These inquiries could produce a new confrontation with the Iranian authorities.

It is also clear that Iran wishes to retain its ability to enrich uranium on home turf and will not put all of its fissile material onto the planned reprocessing scheme. So there could still be scope for argument about whether some of it was being diverted into a weapons programme.

If however the Iranians agree to reprocessing in Russia and close IAEA supervision of their facilities then we might be witnessing a diplomatic breakthrough. The Obama administration will then hail it as a victory for positive diplomatic engagement.

Karzai and Obama in a battle of wills

Mark Urban | 15:43 UK time, Monday, 19 October 2009

Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama are now locked in a contest over how to respond to the verdict of the Electoral Complaints Commission that the Afghan leader failed to reach the required 50% in August's first round of voting.

The commission, which is funded by the international community, has disallowed hundreds of thousands of Mr Karzai's votes, under suspicion of fraud.

Yesterday the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said that the US would not move ahead with US troop reinforcements unless Mr Karzai resolved the issue - either by accepting there must be a further round of voting with the leading challenger, Dr Abdullah, or sharing power with him.

The issue has turned into a highly unusual public diplomatic battle of wills.

Last Thursday Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador in Washington, appeared to indicate publicly that Mr Karzai had accepted the need for a second round.

This brought comments from White House sources that if he did so, the embattled Afghan leader would "wipe clean" the slate after the disputed first round of elections.

The way would then be clear for the US to increase its military and civilian commitment in Afghanistan.

The White House knows that Mr Obama's Democratic party base regard Mr Karzai as a figure tainted by the allegations of electoral fraud.

This is why it is so important for the Afghan leader to accept either another round of voting, or power sharing, before the troop announcement is made.

Washington had already assured the British government that it intended to increase its troop strength in Afghanistan substantially.

Newsnight's revelation of this last Wednesday drew repeated denials from Mr Obama's spokesman.

After Mr Jawad's comments it is apparent that the BBC's revelation threatened to ease the pressure on Mr Karzai, which was the last thing the White House wanted at that moment.

So where does this leave us now? There is a Plan A in which the apparent understandings communicated to people in the British government and the Afghan ambassador in Washington get back on track:

Mr Karzai agrees to share power with his rival, Dr Abdullah, or fight him again at the polls, paving the way for the US to announce it will boost its commitment to the country.

But if Mr Karzai refuses, a Plan B will be needed.

Why Gordon thinks he is on a promise

Mark Urban | 18:50 UK time, Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The word is, from usually impeccable sources, that President Barack Obama has decided to increase US forces in Afghanistan substantially.

There was a further White House meeting on the subject on Wednesday, but nothing has yet been announced officially in Washington.

Meanwhile Britain has said it will send 500 more troops, and in the run up to this announcement, Whitehall has received reassurances from the US president that the UK will not be left out on a limb.

According to some of those in the know, the US reinforcement could be as large as 45,000. This would amount to a dramatic endorsement of the counter-insurgency strategy proposed by General Stanley McChrystal and a reversal for Vice-President Joe Biden who questioned the value of sending more men and women.

Although Gen McChrystal has been widely reported as asking for 30-40,000 more troops, insiders say he actually looked at a variety of options that ranged from no boost (which would have involved giving up certain areas in order to concentrate existing numbers) to a thumping 60,000 more.

Announcing Britain's increase today the country's senior serving officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup hinted that although he did not want to pre-empt the US Joint Chiefs, "I'm pretty confident how it's going to come out".

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Generals as politicians - lessons from history

Mark Urban | 18:06 UK time, Wednesday, 7 October 2009

General Sir Richard Dannatt's enlistment in the Tory defence team, on the day after he left the Army is an unprecedented event.

It's also one that makes a great many people uncomfortable.

In terms of precedent, or the lack of it, there is a recent one and a historical one, but neither quite matches these circumstances.


Admiral Sir Alan West, formerly head of the Royal Navy, was appointed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007 as security minister and elevated to the House of Lords.

Lord West though followed the "decent interval" principle (one year and four months in his case) between leaving the forces and taking up his ministerial post.

The same rule is usually applied to service chiefs seeking lucrative jobs with defence contractors.

It is also true that Lord West's ministerial job is located outside the Ministry of Defence, so does not concern the narrow interests of his former service.

Going further back in time, one has to think back all the way to 1914 and Lord Kitchener's appointment as secretary of war.

He was a field marshal with a distinguished record, who was co-opted into the war cabinet as the nation entered a total war.

He was the architect of the mass mobilisation of three million men (hence the iconic recruiting poster) which arguably allowed Britain to win World War I.

Kitchener achieved great things, although his appointment was resented by a great many politicians.

Loss of a generation

As for his former colleagues, when Gen Sir William Robertson took over as head of the Army one year into the war, he did so only on condition that he, rather than Kitchener would give strategic advice to the Cabinet.

He was also regarded by many as the man who sent an entire generation to its doom - and my late grandfather, a survivor of the Somme, certainly saw Kitchener in those terms.

Serious as the situation in Helmand is though, it's hardly comparable to that moment in 1914 when the lights were going out all over Europe.

During World War I almost one quarter of all the men in Britain ended up serving in the Army - a degree of national mobilisation never equalled before or since (not even in World War II).

In those circumstances, drawing Field Marshal Kitchener into the cabinet was an understandable step - and in accepting his job he made clear he would not play the role of a party politician.

Division of power

Go further back into history and the examples of Wellington and Marlborough can be given, but the unwritten constitutional rules about separating powers were different then.

At one point in the Napoleonic wars there were more than 70 serving Army officers in the House of Commons, for example.

More importantly, despite their extraordinary success on the battlefield, Marlborough and Wellington were divisive political figures who are still viewed, centuries later, through the prism of party prejudice.

Even today the Tory will argue that Wellington won the Battle of Waterloo, whereas modern day Whigs still insist it was the Prussians who saved the day.

This then is the underlying lesson about the way power is divided in Britain.

Once a general enters the political arena, however successful he is, his achievements or reputation become the subject of a factional dispute.

Problems with prejudice

The possibility of Gen Dannatt as Lord Dannatt, with a junior defence ministerial portfolio entering the corridors of the MoD fills some with concern.

Will it prejudice the position of his successor, General Sir David Richards? Or of the Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup?

These are the men who are meant to provide ministers with military advice. They are also meant to be shaping the forthcoming defence review. For this reason, although there were reports earlier in the day that Gen Dannatt would join the ministerial team, later on, the more nebulous term "adviser" was being used.

There are those who welcome Gen Dannatt's step towards a job with the Tories - be it ministerial or something less formal - and I have been following their arguments on the blogosphere: the general is a man of integrity, and wisdom; he knows the forces inside out, unlike most ministers.

All of this is true, and any unprejudiced observer would admit it.

The problem is that once you accept a party political role, so many observers will be prejudiced.

Afghanistan indecision reveals Obama uncertainty

Mark Urban | 15:36 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

US President Barack Obama is planning two further meetings on his Afghanistan strategy this week.

In the meantime, while the basic direction of the war is debated in Washington, the man sent to take command of the war, General Stanley McChrystal, will have to "pound sand" as they say in the military.


Appearing at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies last week, the general parried questions aimed at probing any discomfort he might be feeling at his position.

For having appointed Gen McChrystal to sort out the US and Nato approach to the war, the president is now apparently reluctant to endorse his recommendations.

Better the right decision than a quick one, said the general at the IISS.

While the battle to define the new approach continues, it would be a foolish military commander indeed who showed any disrespect to his commander in chief.

So long as the strategic direction coming from the White House is clear, coherent, and well informed then everything will pan out.

The problem is that many people involved in trying to fight the war do not believe there is leadership of that kind.

Reminiscent of Bush administration

There has been a flurry of leaks and newspaper stories about divisions in the administration.

To an extent this is part of the normal rough and tumble. But there is something reminiscent of the dysfunctional early Bush administration decision making about Iraq in all this chewing over of the Afghan issue.

Washington's power politics soon rushes to fill the vacuum created by presidential indecision.

As if in a negative image of the first Bush term, where there was a vice-president (Cheney) who pushed hard for the military option, now there is one (Biden) who seeks to reduce the US' exposure.

Vice-President Joe Biden's judgement is suspect to many in the US military because in June 2007 he publicly declared the Iraq troop surge to have failed just as it was starting to deliver important results.

Impossible position?

Afghan strategy was meant to have been cast more than six months ago when the president issued his Af-Pak plan.

But it showed obvious signs of the tension between those who believe in applying the military's preferred approach - a counter insurgency campaign to secure the people - and those like Mr Biden who think the US can protect its security interests by mounting strikes against al-Qaeda bases.

When he took up his command in June, Gen McChrystal was told he needed to deliver a tangible improvement in security within 12-18 months.

Many colleagues thought this was already an impossibly difficult target in a country like Afghanistan, but how much more so when the strategy apparently set in March has been in a state of flux?

Some in Washington and Whitehall believe Gen McChrystal has been placed in an impossible position.

Could he resign if the president brushes aside his recommendations? There are those certainly who think that would put him in an impossible position.

There are a couple of pointers about how serious the military's concerns about the direction of the war have become.

In the first place, the leaking of Gen McChrystal's report a couple of weeks ago to the Washington Post showed how discontented people at the Pentagon might make life even more difficult for the administration.

'Lack of presidential interest'

Another indicator of the military's disquiet came in an interview last month with Gen McChrystal on CBS.

He revealed that during his first two-and-a-half months in the job as commander of the Afghanistan war (and prior to their consultations last week), he had only spoken to Mr Obama once.

Even allowing for the fearsome challenges of the economy or his healthcare reforms, and even allowing for the fact that his Defence Secretary Robert Gates likes to manage things himself, it seems remarkable that the president should show so little interest.

If Mr Obama is unsure that the US has chosen the right strategy, surely you'd expect more contact with the field commander rather than less?

Millions of Americans turned to Mr Obama because they blamed the Bush administration for rushing to war.

Careful deliberation is surely a good thing in these life and death matters.

But while the argument about the means that should be applied to achieve the president's goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a dynamic and continuing thing, it seems remarkable that in all the time from his election through transition to the enunciation of his Af-Pak strategy in March and the current series of war cabinet meetings, that Mr Obama still seems unsure as to what the aim should be - building up the Afghan state or simply neutralising al-Qaeda?

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