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Archives for February 2011

Too much or too little?

Mark Mardell | 22:14 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011


jay_carney_sanctions.jpgThere had been deep worries at the White House that American citizens would be taken hostage in Libya. This is a moment haunted by history. Echoes of Iran informed the caution of the last few days.

But now most US nationals seem to be out, the embassy has been closed and diplomats evacuated - the rhetoric has been ramped up and concrete action announced.

New White House spokesman Jay Carney said Col Muammar Gaddafi had zero credibility with his own people and announced the US would impose unilateral sanctions.
A few hours later, President Obama signed an executive order freezing the assets of the colonel and some of his close family.

The US is also hoping other countries, particularly the EU, will join in, while seeking multilateral ones. But some regard this wish as wimpish. When they look to history, they want Serbia, not Rwanda.

Politicians, including John McCain and former, mainly Republican, officials from the left and right have written to president Obama, urging him to take tougher measures including introducing a no-fly zone over Libya, using the US Air Force to stop Col Gaddafi's jets from bombing their own people.

The White House has ruled nothing out, but President Obama may be loath to use American military might in this way. This is a testing moment for those who believe in liberal interventionism. It is also a testing moment for those who don't believe that wherever possible, the West should keep its nose out of other countries' affairs.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who also served under President George W Bush, has told cadets at West Point military academy any future president who send troops to a third world country, like Iraq or Afghanistan, would need his head examined. Of course, no one is advocating anything like that in Libya. But it is against that historical backdrop that this White House is agonising about doing too little or too much.

Lessons in war at West Point

Mark Mardell | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011


In the last of three special reports on the US military for BBC Radio Four's Today programme I have been looking at the increasingly intellectual approach of the American army towards warfare, counter-insurgency and grand strategy.

West Point, New York State

I could be in an Oxford or Cambridge college, except the students scurrying between classes are dressed in a distinctive uniform of black tunic and grey trousers and forage caps.

This is where America trains its elite officers, and there is a determination they should join a new breed of military men and women, the warrior intellectuals. I am trying to find out if this promotion of academic free thinking helps America, and testing a pet theory of mine, that this stress on theory has actually ended up in a new orthodoxy which the president may have to challenge.

Cadets from the the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

West point, north of New York on the Hudson river is old by American standards. It used to be George Washington's headquarters in the war of independence. The cadets can take all the usual degree subjects, history, chemistry, philosophy - with an added twist to some courses, the ethics of the military, the laws of war, and the history of Chinese warfare.

I sit in on a class where Colonel Matt Moten is talking about the lessons of the American Civil War. He's the best sort of teacher, pacing the class room engaging the students, with questions, insights and anecdotes. On the white board he writes in green marker pen: "McClellan...I can do it all. Confident. Cautious messianic."

They discuss Lincoln's forbearance with this arrogant and over cautious general before moving on to Grant's possible alcoholism, and his will to win.

West Point has been a military school since 1802. In the comfort of the Clausewitz study room which is furnished with all leather armchairs and old bound books, I talk to some cadets. They tell me the training is pointedly academic.

"It is a way of thinking, a way of dealing with problems, adapting, from things you've learnt whether it is in military theory or American politics," says one.

"You do homework before class. Answers aren't provided to you. And you have to figure out how analyse these problems and come out with solutions.

"And that prepares us to do a lot of intellectual work on our own and that prepares us for wars where we have to analyse lots of information quickly and where the answers aren't readily available," they tell me.

I put it to them this is rather at odds with a perception of some British and European observers that the American military knows all about going in hard, but at lower ranks at least, knows little about other cultures or languages, that they don't realise Kabul is very different to Kansas.

One says that is rather unfair, another says that the emphasis is changing.

"Some get it, some don't. You will get privates who aren't very smart. But I've interacted with sergeants who've already got their masters degree."

Colonel Moten agrees: "It's a work in progress. Earlier in the recent unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan that caricature was probably truer than we would like to believe. But eight, nine years deep, our army has certain learnt the necessities of understanding the cultural terrain in which they operate.

"We're training people in languages. If you go to a unit, in say Afghanistan, the level of detail they will understand about the area they operate, which tribal leaders connect to whom, the economy of the region, and so on, it is astonishing," he adds.

The cadets are unlikely to stop their education when they graduate. To get to the top it seems army officers effortlessly swap the front line for the classroom, masters degrees and doctorates and valued as the medals on their chest.

Recently retired General James Dubik , now with the Institute for the Study of War was a senior commander in Iraq and a professor of philosophy. He thinks the conjuncture is very useful: "My study in philosophy has helped me as an army officer throughout my career. It's given me the opportunity to understand how to look at the same problem from many different perspectives. The issues haven't changed in 2,000 years. So you learn how Plato understood the problem. Aristotle, Hume, Locke, Kierkegaard, Hegel - they all look at the same problem from different angles. As a senior army officer this is a very useful skill," he says.

"So how did Kierkegaard help Iraq?" I ask somewhat quizzically.

"A lot," he replies. "In Iraq there was a tough intellectual problem. How to accelerate the growth of the Iraqi security forces, while the surge was going on, while fighting an insurgency, with the money that was allocated and no more."

"That is as complex an intellectual problem as you want to have. The discursive leadership style which emanates from Socrates was very useful in guiding the discussion, I had 13 generals working for me, from that emerged a process that ultimately worked."

It may be that American solders turn from their guns to their books where war isn't going so well. At another military school, over looking another strategically vital river, Fort McNair is built where the Anacostia meets the Potomac in Washington. Inside the former war of independence arsenal is the National Defence university. Its vice president for academic affairs, Dr John Yaeger (a former naval pilot and professor of grand strategy) shows me around the archives.

While we are looking at Colin Powell's sword and papers, he tells me that Vietnam was the key moment.

"Our whole American military system is built on this. After we have a war or conflict we think 'oh we need a school so we can improve and capture the lessons learnt'," he says.

"We've revised our education system, so this university was built after the after the Vietnam war. But our oldest college, the industrial college of armed forces, was built after world war one. We didn't mobilise well and we demobilised even worse and we saw the need for a college to teach us."

Vietnam is indeed key.

The very model of a modern warrior intellectual is the commanding officer in Iraq, General Petraeus, and his doctorate was in the lessons of Vietnam. In 2008 he introduced a new army manual focusing on the doctrine of counter insurgency, or Coin as it is known.

It's the theory behind Bush's Iraq surge and Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The manual was partly written by Dr John Nagl who also wrote a book on the subject "Learning to eat soup with a knife."

A former lieutenant colonel in a tank regiment, he's now the president of the centre for a new American security. "I helped write the book - the counter insurgency field manual - which was downloaded a million and a half times the month after it was published found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan," he says.

"There's not much new in it frankly, the principles are timed honoured. But that doctrine helped capture the way the military were thinking about war. From thinking about war as a competition to destroy the enemy, turning that to a willingness to destroy the enemy whenever the enemy presents himself but focusing the population so the enemy can't hurt them.

"That is a very dramatic change and it reshaped the way American military thought about the war in Iraq, it is reshaping the way it is thinking about the war in Afghanistan," he adds.

The cadets at West Point leave me in no doubt that Coin is the currency they are expect to deal in. Two are taking courses in Arabic, another has spent a term studying in Cairo.

"The Army is really making a focus of trying to get cadets to understand what we are trying to do with counter insurgency, really pushing it. That is why so many cadets are going on semesters to places like Egypt, Brazil, not just France and Germany," says one.

Another adds: "It's heavy. My roommate has taken three different classes on Coin. We all talk about it all the time. It is definitely the focus. I think there are trends in the army, just like there are trends everywhere else and it's very fashionable at the moment."

Although everybody I talk to from the military establishment tells me the emphasis I've seen on the intellectual is all about thinking outside the box, it strikes me there's a danger with all this theorising that officers can get stuck inside a box.

A box marked Coin.

Counter insurgency is about winning hearts and minds, not just killing the enemy. That makes it an expensive commitment in terms of troops and support for a foreign government. It takes years to work. So are the military mentally locked into Afghanistan when the president wants to get out?

"The US military is an instrument of American policy, an important instrument, but just an instrument, it does not dictate policy, it does not drive policy," says Colonel Michael Bell.

As the Director of the College of International Security Affairs he believes the military is not mentally locked into Afghanistan: "The fact that we are out in the regions, that we have relations with many other countries means we have perspectives that other parts of the govt may not share or have, but we are very conscious of that role."

"You will see the military will provide advice, particularly during the policy formulating and debate phases - and sometimes that is taken seen as dissent - rather than recognise that once the orders are made, the military resumes its role as an instrument of policy."

But some worry Coin is a fad that has gone too far.

"As an army we have probably focused too much on the doctrine of counter insurgency. It was never meant to be a way of war, never meant to be a strategy," says Colonel Moton, one of those who is not bowled over by it.

"It is meant to provide lower level techniques of fighting insurgents and it has, because of a really good public relations campaign, it has taken on a life of its own.

"But I do think a number of people have conflated counter insurgency doctrine with American strategy and the two are not, and should not be conflated. We happen to be doing counter insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. And look, we've hundreds of thousands of people doing good work there and I don't mean to diminish their efforts. But the strategy is much broader than the tactics they are using on the ground in those countries."

Many American generals believe they can escape the doom of cliche, fighting the last battle. They hope they can actually win the last two wars by studying their failures and fighting them again, in a new way. But in their quest for new perspectives they may have trapped themselves inside a theory too costly, too exhausting for the nation to bear.

Mark Mardell's reports on Radio 4's Today programme can be heard here:
'Warrior intellectuals' in US military
US troops 'have become iconic figures'
Inside the 'military-industrial complex'

Can the Tea Party water down the military industrial complex?

Mark Mardell | 13:53 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011


In the second of three special reports on the US military for BBC Radio Four's Today programme I have been looking at how the US defence industry's lobbying power will constraint efforts to cut the defence budget. The plan is to broadcast, and post, the next piece on Friday.

pentagon.jpgI've never been to a chemical biological warfare breakfast before, but it turns out the sausages are safe and the pastries are perfectly fine.

The Chemical Biological Executive Roundtable Breakfast refers not to the food but the subject matter - how to protect America and her allies from biological and chemical attack.

The guest speaker, Dr Alan Rudolph, heads up a Pentagon department tasked with developing chemical and biological products to defend against weapons of mass destruction.

Most of the breakfasters are from the chemical and biological industry. We're in a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, a stone's throw away from the Pentagon in one direction and Congress in another, in what's know as the iron triangle. I only spot one camouflage uniform among the suits, but this is the sort of event where military and industry mix and mingle.

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This is the military industrial complex at work, or at least at breakfast. I put this to Dean Ertwine, the head of the biological and chemical division of the National Defense Industrial Association, which organised the event. He pauses, laughs and says: "I suppose this is it. One piece of it. What you saw was a small representation of the industry."

"Is it a bad thing, as so many suppose?" I ask.

"Those that are in it certainly don't think it is a bad thing. I mean what's the alternative? If there is going to be preparedness, I don't think people would like the government to grow to the point where they are not only designing, setting the requirements but also producing the equipment," Mr Ertwine says.

He adds: "The competitive nature of it keeps it cost-effective."

Mr Ertwine is a former general, army acquisition officer (although he never awarded contracts) and a professor of chemistry at the US Military Academy at West Point. Is that revolving door a positive thing?

"Having had that experience I am in a position where I understand what the government requirements are. The influence I have within my company means I can align and tailor what we do to a specific need. I am in a much better position to do that than somebody who has absolutely no defence background," he says.

eisenhower2.jpgIt was President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and former five-star general, who first warned about the growth of a military industrial complex in his 1961 farewell speech from the White House.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Whether disastrous or not, few would doubt it has persisted. America spent more than $1tn (£616bn) on its military last year. Half of what the government must spend by law goes to the military. About $140bn was spent on procurement alone. The director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, William Hartung, says it has grown and grown.

There is sort of a symbiotic relationship that ends up with us spending more than we need. It's almost like doing an archaeological dig. There is weaponry left over from the Cold War that was designed to deal with the Soviet Union that still is being built. There's weaponry being built for the war on terror. There is weaponry being built for potential adversaries like China, and in each of these areas, you can see the fingerprints of the companies. They are on the defence policy board, which helps define the threat. They are lobbying Congress. They are now trying to spin the Chinese threat to be more than it really is. The companies not only keep spending at a higher level but make it more difficult for the Pentagon to make choices.

In a taxi later, the radio is on and happens to be playing an ad by Boeing. It's not that the company expects people to pop out and buy a plane. It is just another form of lobbying.

But the mood in Washington may be changing.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has announced the cancellation of 30 projects, including a fighter plane, a destroyer and an amphibious vehicle, saving $78bn. He's also announced that the next year's budget will be only $553bn. While that is $13bn less than the Pentagon expected, it is still an increase. Mr Gates warned deeper cuts would be "tragic".

fighter.jpgSome in Congress may not be in a mood to listen. It is a sign of the changing times that last week the House of Representatives voted down plans for an extra back-up engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It was always a deeply weird concept. An alternative engine, in case the current one turned out to be no good. The Pentagon has always said it wasn't needed but Congress insisted.

One of the rebels was Allen West, newly elected last November with the help of the Tea Party. He spent 22 years in the US military but wants defence cuts. He said:

I am not going to be a slave to that defence industry or that complex. I want to make sure we are giving our soldiers, our sailors, our marines what they need, not the industry telling us what they want to give us. And then there's the contracting process and the procurement process that takes so much time and ends up costing more and more, and cost over-runs. We've got to clean that up.

The Tea Party joins Democrats like Barney Frank who have long argued that America spends too much on defence. Mr Frank says:

The American military budget does not need to be trimmed, it needs to be substantially reduced. The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is no longer a threat. But we retain three ways of defeating the Soviet Union in a nuclear war, by the delivery of nuclear weapons through intercontinental ballistic missiles, through airplanes and submarines. I want to be very conservative and say to the Pentagon: 'Of those three ways pick two. Give up one.'
We will still have two ways of defeating this non-existing empire and saving billions of dollars. To my friends in Western Europe, I want to say, 'Congratulations, you are now wealthy enough to defend yourselves.' We are talking about defending Romania and Bulgaria and Poland against missiles. I don't know who is aiming missiles at them, maybe I haven't read the latest fatwa, but I don't remember even the loonies in Iran threatening Poland with nuclear attack.

But the military industrial complex will not take this lying down. Vice-president of the National Defence Industry Association Barry Bates, a former general, says deep cuts could be dangerous:

We've got to be careful how those cuts are being made, so that we don't inadvertently harm our industrial capability as a nation and lengthen or prevent our ability to respond when the nation does again need that capability.

Breakfast over, industry people stand in a respectful queue to chat to the guest speaker and hand over their business cards. Like many others here, Dr Rudolph, the director for chemical and biological technologies directorate of the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has moved back and forth between the military establishment and private industry. He foresees the military industrial complex not dying but mutating, he says:

The definition of the military industrial complex is changing. Biology relies on industries that do not have a tradition with the military, like the pharmaceutical industry or the chemical industry, so we are very much in developing of new industrial complexes, so that the definitions are changing.

Does that mean, I ask, that the military industrial complex is in fact growing? He responds:

It's growing in certain ways and reducing in other ways. We need less big bang weapons systems and more very agile ways to produce new medicines for threats faced by the military.

There is little doubt that the industry is preparing itself for change and for leaner times. But the intense lobbying and close contacts between the Pentagon, industry and Congress may soften the blow.

Peter W Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defence Initiative at Brookings, says after Mr Gates leaves the Pentagon, real cuts will have to be made.


Gates is kicking the can down the road to a future defence secretary. They will probably feel very painful to the Pentagon. But it won't be the scale of cuts to other agencies. They could be in the range of $60bn. It will feel very tough to the Pentagon, maybe not just cutting fat but hitting muscle. But there will be other agencies, like the state department, which does not have a Congressional constituency, that does not have a 'diplomatic industrial complex' behind it, and for them cuts are probably not going to just hit fat and muscle but cut through the bone completely.

The newly elected, fiscally conservative Tea Party-supported Republicans may have changed the equation by a fraction. They are less in awe of big industry and may carry on voting for serious cuts. But many will still find meaning in Eisenhower's warning. Despite the bountiful breakfast the industry may be in for leaner times, but nothing approaching a famine.

Patriotism a unique pressure on US president

Mark Mardell | 17:15 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011


In the first of three special reports on the US military for BBC Radio Four's Today programme I have been looking at how the American people's high regard for their military might constrain President Barack Obama's foreign policy. The plan is to broadcast, and post, the next piece on Wednesday and the final one on Friday.

Watching through night vision goggles I can see big jets streak across the night sky overhead. It looks as if they are laying eggs, points of light which unfold like bright white jelly fish swimming downwards in a green sea.

Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

I am watching a simulated attack on an enemy air field by the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The chutes unfold into eight billowing crescents, looking even more like marine creatures drifting towards the sea bottom. The movement seems slow and graceful. But I know at the end of the eight-fold blooms are heavy pieces of kit; howitzers and humvees. They must land with an almighty thud, but at this distance I can't hear a thing. A few moments later I watch the next act of this seemingly calm ballet.

Three planes, then another three, streak overhead disgorging an uneven line of white pips over about two and a half miles.

Their movement seems even more like a dance in some heavy medium. It is beautiful and induces an almost trance like calm. It is easy to forget this is the descent of a killing machine, one manifestation of the mightiest, most expensive military machine the world has ever known.

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The exercise simulates an assault on an enemy airfield. As the 82nd Airborne's commanding officer Major General Jim Huggins told the briefing, "under in the dark of night across a foreign land our mission is to enter, fight and win."

He is immensely proud of commanding these men and women.

"We are at a time of war. I would characterize them as the true patriots," he says.

"There used to be a time in peacetime people would come in and sign up for college option, and bonuses and pieces like that.

"When a young man or woman now raises their hand and promises to defend our constitution they know they could be putting their lives in harms way," he adds.

Many in America feel the same way. I seen an airplane load of people applaud someone in uniform. Many soldiers have told me that strangers in the street have shaken their hands in thanks.

I put it to Major General Huggins that a lot has changed since 9/11.

"We are very blessed. Having been the son of an enlisted man, my father was a sergeant major, he did three tours of Vietnam, it was a different time. I believe society has evolved. There is a deep seated appreciation today," he says.

A local businessman, Tommy Bolton, goes further. He is a civilian aide to the secretary for war, and provides support for the troops in the local community.

"These soldiers are the most incredible fighting force known to man. They are the greatest patriots ever put on this planet," he says.

"They are what stands between us and the face of terror. These soldiers from Fort Bragg were the ones who were deployed first and drew that imaginary line in the sand between terrorism and the good guys.

"If it were not for these guys running round in uniform here today, the face of terror would be all too familiar to us. It would be on our land, in your country and mine.

"It would be in our shopping centre, our churches, our highways and our schools," he continues.

This fierce gratitude, a swelling patriotic pride, is not without its political implication.

"It stems in many respects from the Vietnam experience and the regret of many Americans that opposition to that war translated into blaming American soldiers," says former Army Colonel Andrew Bacovitch, who is a long-term critic of American foreign policy. He says today's troops are such heroes because some saw another era's fighters as villains.

"In a sense out of regret or guilt, Americans insist there is no higher value than supporting the troops," he adds.

The view through night vision goggles.

"They have become iconic figures; the repositories of virtues that we imagine once prevailed or should prevail through out American society. The high regard in which the military is held provides an excuse not to ask critical questions about the way the United States military is used. The imperative to support the troops seems to trump all other considerations."

Mr Bacovitch argues it was those considerations, in part, which forced President Obama to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

But the president has made a promise. The troops will start coming home in the summer, and it will all be over by 2014.

The belief in Washington is that the military are asking for more time and more flexibility. What if they say: "Just another few months, Mr President, and we can win this?"

"Presidents do have to be very strong because the military does have a great reputation in the civilian community," says Dr Lorrie Fenner, a former intelligence officer and an air force colonel, now with the institute for national strategic studies. He believes a president needs to be tough to defy military recommendations.

"When you take polls you see civilians really do respect the military. We're out of that post-Vietnam syndrome, at the same time the military have great education and training. Sometimes they can out debate their peers quite substantially but that's why the president has an entire cabinet and other advisors, because the military is not always right and we've seen that in history as well."

But many believe that Hillary Clinton and even more importantly the defence secretary, the hugely respected Robert Gates, argued along with senior officers for the Afghan troop increase.

Members of the 82nd airborne at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Could they also argue for more time? The author of a series of admiring books on his travels with the troops, as well as many other works, the author Robert Kaplan thinks the situation has changed.

"A weak unsure-of-himself new president can only defy the military with the defence secretary on his side. Instead he had Gates saying 'no, we've got to stay there'. It is very difficult for the president to defy the military. But what you have now is the date extended to 2014."

"If Obama is re-elected he'll have a lot of experience, he'll have his re-election behind him. He can easily say 'no' to the military at that point. He'll have a new secretary of defence by then too."

At Fort Bragg I am shown how to get in and out of a parachute, and how to hold a "molly" - a heavy pack - if I was going to jump. There are a fearsome array of sniper rifles, machine guns and mortars on display.

The 82nd expects to go out to Afghanistan soon. I ask one of them, Specialist Dutchenson, who has served in Iraq, how she feels about being called a hero.

"The airport is the biggest place. People surround you. It's like 'thank you so much for everything you do' and 'God bless America', all that, and they make you feel really good but it feels too much. Like, you don't realize what you're doing, while you doing it it's just your job. It's not like you want to go out and be a hero today, it's just an very everyday thing for us," she says.

Fort Bragg does not live up to its name. They do not boast of being heroes. But they perhaps do not have the option. Many Americans, are dismissive of their politicians, distrustful of government, but desperately want to believe in something bigger and better that binds them all together. The way America chooses to see these young men and women puts pressure on the president.

You don't see it much in this part of North Carolina but he's likely to agree with the leftish bumper sticker: "Support our troops: bring them home."

What does the future hold for Petraeus?

Mark Mardell | 15:31 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Gen David Petraeus

If you were lucky enough to see early editions of the Times of London and the Telegraph, you might have thought that Gen David Petraeus was about to quit his job as head of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. This would be big.

After all, Gen Petraeus has only been in the job a matter of months, an emergency appointment after the dismissal of Gen Stanley McChrystal over his over-frank interview in Rolling Stone.

Most observers think he has got his way about the timeline for US troop withdrawal, pushing President Barack Obama to stress 2014 more than this summer, but nothing is fixed yet.

His previous job was head of US Central Command, technically a more senior job.

But there's no doubt that Gen Petraeus is, in authority if not rank, America's top soldier. He's certainly the best known serving officer.

But the big news quickly shrank in later editions of the papers, after Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell issued a strong statement, saying Gen Petraeus would eventually leave his command of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) but there were no firm plans yet:

"Despite some sensational speculation by one of the London papers, I can assure you Gen Petraeus is not quitting as Isaf commander, but nor does he plan to stay in Afghanistan forever."

But then came what we call a non-denial denial.

"Obviously he will rotate out at some point, but that point has not yet been determined and it will not occur any time soon. Until then, he will continue to ably lead our coalition forces in Afghanistan."

This clearly leaves the way open for him to leave the job by the end of the year.

What might he do then? Presumably the only way is up - he won't leave for something humdrum.

One possibility is to replace Adm Mike Mullen, who is chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.

If I remember rightly from Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, the president sees Gen Petraeus as a very political figure not above some political mischief-making.

So it would be a bold move for Barack Obama to make him defence secretary, but a potentially smart one.

The imminent departure of Robert Gates as defence secretary is a really big headache for the president. It is hard to find someone who has as much clout with the military and the political right (which is why Hillary Clinton was always a stupid answer to this difficult question).

Gen Petraeus, as last night's flurry shows, creates headlines and matters beyond these shores.

Could he run as Republican presidential candidate? Many would find that attractive.

But he has repeatedly and forcefully ruled that out, declaring in March: "I thought I've said 'no' as many ways as I could. I will not ever run for political office, I can assure you of that."

This raises an interesting question: do you run for vice-president or are you picked for it?

If I was any of the Republican presidential contenders, I could think of worse choices.

Or maybe he'll just write a book. Anyway, he's a man to watch.

Fort Bragg and US military might

Mark Mardell | 11:44 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011


The hanger smells of freshly sawn wood and paint.
A sand-coloured Humvee, the military vehicle that became famous in Iraq, is anchored with giant straps to a metal pallet, its lights bandaged with tape, windscreen folded, moving parts secured with plants of wood and buffered with honeycombed material, ready for the big drop. On top of the vehicle are big blue parachute bags, eight of them in all.

Along with heavy guns, more than 1,000 paratroopers from the 82nd airborne are being readied for a night-time simulation of an assault on an enemy airfield here at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

All this week, I am collecting material for three pieces for Radio 4's Today programme on the might of the American military.

If things go to plan they'll look at the way the US sees their fighting men and women, how that affects policy, and whether the budget cuts can really take on the military industrial complex and the role of training and theory in American warfare.

Fort Bragg

When revolution breeds internal struggle

Mark Mardell | 13:54 UK time, Monday, 14 February 2011


Bring on the revolution! (in some places)

There's no doubt the Obama administration would like the Egyptian revolution to light a fire. But the flames are only being fanned in one country. Saudi would be so risky. Jordan would present problems. But Iran would be just peachy.

The US state department has set up a Twitter account in Farsi. In his last briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs singled out Iran three times as a country that should take lessons from Egypt. The national security adviser has issued a statement. You might remember that Obama was criticised when Iranians took to the streets in 2009 and he was seen to do little to encourage them.

A series of articles over the weekend suggests that there was something of a struggle between the White House and state department over how to approach Egypt. Put crudely, they have President Obama wanting to encourage the protesters, and the Department of State worried about stability. I don't know if this is true but it is certainly the story being put out by the administration.

I suspect, although of course can't prove, that this might have been an internal conflict within Mr Obama, between the pragmatic professor of realpolitik who doesn't want to intrude into other people's politics, and the universalist I described on Friday.

But universal values mean so much more if they are not just applied to hostile regimes.

Obama adopts Egypt's revolution

Mark Mardell | 00:17 UK time, Saturday, 12 February 2011


Barack Obama

Barack Obama looked supremely happy making his speech on the exit of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. It was not just that he could complete the one he had started prematurely yesterday. It was not just that, despite all the brickbats that have been thrown at the White House for clumsy handling of this crisis, the administration has got exactly what it has wanted for a couple of weeks: the exit of Mr Mubarak, the entry of the military as caretakers, the promise of democracy, and the absence of violence.

It is more personal, and more political than that. Maybe it is the old community organiser in him, maybe it is the admiring, almost envious, student of the great civil rights leaders, but something tells me few things light him up more than seeing ordinary people overcoming obstacles to seize their own future.

This triumph allowed Mr Obama to revert to the visionary candidate of the campaign, as he did in Tucson after a tragedy.

When he talks about the "moral arc of the universe" you know he is in his element. This is what he is best at. Weaving a selection of facts into a simple story that builds into a grand moral narrative that speaks to his greater vision. He instantly cast the Egyptian revolution as part of a pattern.

"While the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can't help but hear the echoes of history - echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, 'There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.' Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note."

The leader of a country and a capital deeply split on vicious partisan lines could talk of people coming together, despite their differences, in one cause:

"We saw people of faith praying together and chanting - "Muslims, Christians, We are one." And though we know that the strains between faiths still divide too many in this world and no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes remind us that we need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common humanity that we share."

The commander-in-chief of the most powerful military the world has ever known could talk of the power of non-violence:

"Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of non-violence - not terrorism, not mindless killing - but non-violence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more."

This day of history brings many years of potential problems for this president and those beyond him. The army will probably embark on the sort of reforms people want, but that is not certain. In free and fair elections, the Egyptian people will not necessarily choose leaders who are friendly to the West or to Israel. Other Middle Eastern autocrats may not be delighted at the thought that Mr Obama might want to bend the moral arc of the universe in their direction.

But there is opportunity between these potential problems. Film stars can adopt foreign orphans, Mr Obama has adopted a foreign revolution, and with it a foreign policy narrative that allows him to restate his core manifesto of inspiration and unity.

Obama frustration at Mubarak speech

Mark Mardell | 06:20 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011


President Obama is running out of patience with the Egyptian government.

President Mubarak's repeated accusations of foreign interference cannot have helped. Mr Obama may have been cross with himself for going over the top before Mr Mubarak spoke and suggesting that this would be a day of transformation when history unfolded.

He, like everyone else, thought the Egyptian president was about to resign. I strongly suspect that he, again like everyone else, listened to the speech and thought: "What on earth does that mean?"

That presented a very real problem. If Mr Mubarak was handing over power in an oblique, flowery, face-saving way, the crowd in the square - pumped up in anticipation - didn't get it.

The United States wants stability. Clarity helps but confusion feeds chaos. The Egyptian president was obtuse in the old style, circling round and round before touching lightly on the meat of the matter and then nimbly backing off into more nebulous sentimentalism. It doesn't cut it with the Twitter generation.

So it is not surprising that President Obama's statement sounded frustrated and scolding. He said of the one isolated line in the speech that suggested Mubarak might be handing power to Suleiman: "It is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient.

"Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world... We therefore urge the Egyptian government to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step by step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek."

As for Mr Mubarak's stirring calls for Egyptians to reject foreign interference: "As we have said from the beginning of this unrest, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. But the United States has also been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe that the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met... In these difficult times, I know that the Egyptian people will persevere, and they must know that they will continue to have a friend in the United States of America."

That "persevere" is important. In a variety of ways the Obama administration has looked cack-handed in its handling of this crisis. But that shouldn't obscure the fact that for a week at least they have been quite consistent, backing the demonstrators and their hopes. I noted a few days ago that Mr Obama seemed to be using language that recalled the civil right movement.

He has put himself, and America, on the side of the demonstrators.

It may look like the easy thing to do. After all, how many commentators, how many politicians, are saying "back Mubarak, face down the protesters?" But don't doubt that this is a real and dangerous gamble.

The White House should be the first to understand that this is unpredictable. No-one can know where this goes next, or who the winners and losers will be. Supporting change the Egyptian people can believe in may not be easy.

Mr Obama may be wrong, but unlike Mr Mubarak, he couldn't be clearer.

A beginning not an end emerging in Egypt

Mark Mardell | 16:43 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011


In the White House, they appeared almost stunned watching TV reports from Egypt. President Barack Obama aboard his jet Air Force One was kept up to date through a telephone briefing from the head of the National Security Council.

On the ground he told students: "What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold."

That's is a pretty safe prediction.

He added: "It is a moment of transformation that is taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."

Again, little doubt about that.

The Egyptian army almost certainly felt events were slipping away from its control, and that it has to act because of the demonstrations and protests.

But the next part of his brief remarks commits his administration: "Going forward, we want those young people and we want all Egyptians to know that America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt."

That means the president's team will be keeping a wary eye on their friends on the Egyptian army.

If Hosni Mubarak goes, the White House will see this as a beginning, not the end.

Western diplomats believe the Egyptian army saw the demonstrations growing and the demands from America hardening and feared that events were running away from them.

If Mr Mubarak goes it will be seen here as more than a simple symbol that the demonstrators' demands are being met. It will be seen as a vital removal of an obstacle that was getting in the way of the opposition engaging in talks.

And that is important to America. Perhaps the most important thing for the administration is stability and continuity, not least because Egypt is a friend of Israel and supporter of the peace process.

But that doesn't mean they will be happy if the army merely takes over and people leave the square. They are stressing the importance of real change and free elections.

This is not because of an abstract commitment to democracy, which many observe has been lacking in the past. It is down to a worry that if the army tries to cling to the status quo, there will be more demonstrations further down the line, perhaps with an added anti-Western tinge.

America craves stability in Egypt. But Mr Obama believes the only way to achieve it is through change.

Will the genie grant Washington's wishes?

Mark Mardell | 00:29 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011


Protesters in Cairo

Western diplomats say that the US administration's policy on Egypt has undergone a definite change in the past 24 hours. Cynics may observe it is not the first flip and may not be the last flop. More generous souls might reflect that the US, like Keynes, is responding to an ever-shifting reality.

Let's step back for a moment, and trace those twists and turns. After an initially very rocky response, in which the Egyptian government was described as "stable", the US government backed swift change and urged an end to violence. Troops appeared on the streets and a vice-president was appointed. The administration felt it was getting results. A message was delivered to President Hosni Mubarak. He made a speech saying he would resign in September. That wasn't quite good enough. The administration adopted an increasingly easy to break code, which translated as "Mubarak must go".

The culmination of this phase was President Barack Obama's short news conference, putting himself firmly on the side of the demonstrators, urging Mr Mubarak to listen to them and behave like a patriot.

The Egyptian president did not take the hint. Making the best of a bad job, the US then focused not on the personality, but the process. Over the weekend, it seemed to have some faith that Vice-President Omar Suleiman, who'd invited the opposition to take part in negotiations, could deliver what Washington wanted, while Mr Mubarak disappeared, not from the scene, but from public gaze and relevance.

Now Mr Obama's advisers think their faith may have been misplaced.

Mr Suleiman isn't delivering even a fraction of what they want and they don't think he's serious. They are increasingly concerned at the detentions and beatings. They have made getting rid of the emergency law, which has been in effect for 30 years, a symbol of real change.

This was the response of Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, talking on US broadcaster PBS:

"I was really amazed, because, because right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed. How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I'm in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control to stabilise the nation, to stabilise the state and then we would look into the issue."

So the White House is toughening its language, too.

Mr Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has said that protests in Egypt will only get bigger and bigger if the government doesn't quicken the pace of reform.

He said it was clear that the Egyptian government's action has yet to meet the minimum threshold for the people of Egypt. He used the word "threshold" about five times during his briefing.

Mr Gibbs, grasping at a suitably Middle Eastern image, said the notion that the genie could be put back in the bottle had long gone.

The administration seems to be hoping the genie can grant its three wishes, for no violence, real change, and a road map to elections.

But as all readers of The Thousand and One Nights know, these spirits are potentially dangerous allies, with their own agendas.

The White House is in a sense trapped by the necessary niceties of its insistence that it doesn't want to dictate democracy to another country. So the rubric is that it's not what America wants, but what the Egyptian people want. But that doesn't just mean backing the aspiration of the demonstrators. It means the size and continuation of the protests become their yardstick of progress.

But without the assistance of an ifrit, it is hard to see how the US gets what it wants. America is urging its allies around the world to deliver the message about change. But the US has few levers, beyond exhortation. What about all that aid, you say? The subject has been raised again. Mr Gibbs said the administration was reviewing its aid programme to Egypt - "we are watching quite closely" - and the Egyptian government's restraint and reform would "determine what that aid will look like".

I suspect that lever is being used to make sure the army keeps the peace, and it is not available for less important heavy lifting. What I don't know is if the US has really given up on Mr Suleiman and is waiting to see what happens next, or whether it really hopes one last heave can change the scenery. But there is still faith that the genie of change grants its wishes.

The Egyptian genie can't be put back in the bottle

Mark Mardell | 22:08 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


President Barack Obama's spokesman has said that protests in Egypt will only get bigger and bigger if the government there doesn't quicken the pace of reform.

Robert Gibbs, grasping at a suitably Middle Eastern image, said the notion that the genie could be put back in the bottle had long gone. He said it was clear that the Egyptian government's action had yet to meet the minimum threshold for the people of Egypt. He used the word "threshold" about five times during his briefing.

He added that the US was reviewing its aid programme to Egypt, saying: "We are watching quite closely," and the Egyptian government's restraint and reform "will determine what that aid will look like".

Some think the White House has been behind the curve for years and is still backing a process that won't go anywhere.

But there's no doubt it is ratcheting up the pressure even if the focus has shifted. There is no longer much talk about Mr Mubarak's early departure. Instead it is urging specific changes.

US Vice-President Joe Biden has been phoning his opposite number in Egypt, Omar Suleiman, on an almost daily basis. His most recent call (yesterday) was the toughest yet.

He said the emergency law, which has been in force for 43 years and allows a broad range of powers, should be lifted immediately.

Mr Biden also told the man in charge of transition that the ministry of the interior should be restrained immediately and should stop the arrest, beating and detention of journalists and activists and that there should be a clear policy of no reprisals.

The White House has found a form of words to distance itself from the idea it is dictating change. It stresses that it is not what Mr Obama wants, but what the Egyptian people want that matters. But it means the White House has made the satisfaction of the demonstrators its yardstick of progress.

But the Egyptian government ignored Mr Obama's speech last week, it ignored Mr Biden's call yesterday and there is no reason to think this latest briefing will have any more impact.

Defending the knowable known

Mark Mardell | 21:08 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011


At 78, age has not mellowed him.

As Donald Rumsfeld embarks on a series of TV interviews to promote his book, Known and Unknown, he’s aggressively defending not just the Iraq War, but how he handled it.

It is a "known known" that self-justification is the very purpose of political memoirs.

The former US defence secretary is as brusque and sharp-tongued as ever. When he was in the Pentagon, some accused him of leadership through intimidation.

ABC news presenter Diana Sawyer asked him if he terrified people. He replied that he asked questions and if people didn’t have the answers it “wasn’t fun for them”. Mr Rumsfeld is now the one being asked some tough questions, but he seems to be having fun, not giving ground.

His final answer in this particular exchange, about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, echoes his oft mocked but actually rather clever quote which makes for the title of his book.

Rumsfeld: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, the French intelligence, the British intelligence, the German intelligence, it was uniform across the board that it was reasonable to assume that he had chemical and biological weapons.

Sawyer: But you were wrong.

R: My goodness, the intelligence was certainly wrong.

S: If you had known he did not have them.

R: I didn't know.

S: If you had –

R: I didn't.

S: If you had

R: I have no idea. I have no idea. What you know today can help you on things you're thinking about tomorrow. It can't help you with things you were thinking about back then.

The rights and wrongs of the war aside, Mr Rumsfeld has been blamed by the state department of the time and by British ministers, of not planning for the aftermath of war . They accuse him of being ideologically bound to an unrealistically short war - a doctrine dependent on doing the job with as few troops as possible – and shying away from anything that smacked of nation building.

But he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he constantly raised questions about troop numbers and neither the president nor the generals thought any more were needed.

Indeed, in his book Mr Rumsfeld suggests he was one of the few people not to blame for anything that went wrong.

He said Condoleezza Rice tried to run things by committee and that there were too many leaks from Colin Powell's state department. There were “too many hands on the steering wheel”, he writes. He says that long before the war began he had made a list which he called his “parade of horribles”.

He warned against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) not being found, ethnic strife and post Saddam efforts taking more than two to four years.

Mr Rumsfeld writes: “I understood that if WMD were not found the administration’s credibility would be undermined... if we had had a full discussion of this possibility then, it might have made an important difference in the administration’s communication strategy.”

But he says the National Security Council did not have the discussion and so the government never examined “a broad enough spectrum of possibilities”.

He does say that he should have insisted on resigning over the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He tried to do so twice, in hand-written notes to George W Bush, but they were rejected.

“I stepped up and told the president I thought I should resign. And I think probably he and the military and the Pentagon and the country would've been better off if I had."

But Mr Rumsfeld’s memoirs and interviews are on the whole a defence of the known path of the past against the unknowable alternatives urged by others, then and now.

One thing Mr Rumsfeld does not know is doubt.

Muddied message for US on Egypt

Mark Mardell | 17:32 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011


The Obama administration is still watching to see if the Egyptian government is serious about change. So far they are not convinced. Their end game hasn't altered. What US policy-makers want amounts to the current Egyptian government's pro-Western policy plus democratic legitimacy plus stability. They believe for that to happen, peace on the streets is essential and serious negotiations about the path to elections is vital.

They haven't changed their mind about Mubarak: they would still like him to go sooner than September. They just accept that this may not happen. When their unofficial envoy Frank Wisner suggested over the weekend that the Egyptian president should stay on until the autumn, it embarrassed the Obama administration and muddied their message in the eyes of the world. He was slapped down pretty quickly but the damage was done. If Mubarak is to stay, Obama's team want to see some clear signal, a symbolic concession, that shows the Egyptian government knows what is required. That hasn't happened yet.

Why does the US so often back the bad guys?

Mark Mardell | 13:00 UK time, Saturday, 5 February 2011


Why is it that the United States - forged as a nation in a revolution against tyranny, explicitly dedicated to liberty - has so often found itself backing the bad guys?
Barack Obama has now put himself on the side of democracy

Man holding an anti-Mubarak sign in Cairo, Egypt

in Egypt, but it took a time. Indeed, it took the US more than 30 years.

The quandary is not new. Part of the problem is deciding who the bad guys are. One of the founding fathers and the third president, Thomas Jefferson, believed the American Revolution had sparked a fire that would set the world alight.

He was an enthusiast for the French Revolution, defending it even when its nascent democracy descended into dictatorship and terror.

By contrast, his old sparring partner, fellow founding father and the second President, John Adams, was more sceptical from the start and signed a treaty with the country many Americans saw as the foe of liberty: Great Britain.

And so it has gone on. Skip lightly over the Spanish war. A war against one imperialism for sure, but American domination might not have felt like liberty to the people of Cuba and the Philippines.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn't have been more forthright in his early belief that Hitler was a threat to the whole world. To Churchill's irritation, he demanded that the post-war world should banish the days of empire and colonialism. He didn't live to see it, but the new problem was the clash of new empires.

Belief in universal liberty comes up hard against the real world where policymakers often see the choice as between the bad guys, and the worse guys.

The real problem for the US came with its opposition to the expanding Soviet empire. Communism was a new tyranny, but it cloaked itself in the language of liberty, and attracted those fighting foreign rule and domestic domination. In opposing the Soviet Union and its allies, the USA often found itself in bed with a promiscuous parade of the dodgiest of characters - dictators, torturers and thieves - whose only virtue was not being "Commies".

The US never successfully pulled off the trick of encouraging genuine liberal democracies.

When the Iron Curtain was torn down, the US was definitely on the right side of history but did not seize the opportunity to knock down the bulwarks against communism they no longer needed. Reagan, the first Bush and Clinton did not urge people living in dictatorships in the Middle East and Central Asia to seize the freedoms newly enjoyed in the European east.

Of course, the neo-cons wanted a revolution against this hypocrisy. They wanted the United States to aggressively promote democracy with revolutionary fervour. But in power they targeted old enemies, never old friends. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were dictators, but in the scale of sin, their enmity weighed more heavily than their tyranny. As jihadists replaced communists as America's favourite existential threat, the old corrupt and undemocratic bulwarks were again seen as better than the alternative.

It is Barack Obama's reaction to this pattern that initially locked his administration into an awkward ambivalence to the Egyptian revolution. He was elected, in part, in reaction to George W Bush's foreign policy.

So on the one hand Mr Obama seems to genuinely believe that it is not the place of the leader of the world's only superpower to pick and choose the leaders of other countries. That is a value consistent with the American Revolution. So is his other instinct, pulling him in the opposite direction. He believes it is the USA's job to promote what he sees as universal values, and he grows more forthright about this day by day.

It will be interesting to see if he follows up with tough conversations with Saudi King Abdullah, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and other allies who may not share his enthusiasm for the freedoms the president is urging upon Egypt.

For the old dilemma remains. There is some worry in Washington about what follows, and the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood playing a big role in the future. Many observers warn against building them up into a huge bogeyman. But it is also true that any new Egyptian government that encompasses them would be less friendly to Israel, the peace process and the West in general.

The danger of backing revolution and democracy is that the moral arc of the universe does not always bend towards American foreign policy interests.

Obama goes further over Mubarak departure

Mark Mardell | 21:32 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011


The world is waiting, and so is the White House. President Barack Obama has gone further than before in suggesting that Hosni Mubarak should go. But he couldn't quite bring himself, no doubt for very good diplomatic reasons, to say the words.

He was asked directly, in a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, if change could happen while Mr Mubarak remained in charge. The president said that Mr Mubarak should consult with those around him, listen to the voices of the Egyptian people, and make a judgment. Mr Mubarak had, Mr Obama said, already made the break by announcing that he was going in September, so he had to decide how to make the transition legitimate. He hoped the Egyptian president would end up making the right decision.

Again, Mr Obama said that it was important that the transition begin now. He said the US was involved in discussions but the decisions would be taken by the Egyptian people.

The Obama administration is relieved that today's huge protest didn't turn nasty. Violence is the biggest threat to the change the US wants. There were real nerves in Washington that the army would be forced to choose between their commander-in-chief and the people. Instead they were judiciously neutral, keeping rival demonstrators apart.

The president's spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday that the world was waiting for the Egyptian government to take quick, concrete steps toward an orderly transition. It should have happened on Tuesday, he said. They need to sit down with a coalition representing a broad cross-section of Egyptian society.

The reason this isn't happening is because the opposition won't talk while Mr Mubarak remains in power. Mr Gibbs did not rise to the bait when a reporter suggested that the demonstrators might be asked to change their position.

One brief exchange was tantalising though. Mr Gibbs was asked if there had been an assassination attempt against Vice-President Omar Suleiman in the last few days. Looking rattled, he said he wasn't going to get into that. Other sources are equally reticent as to any detail but certainly suggest something happened. If it is true, the big question would be who would be behind it this attempt.

Washington's hopes for the 'day of departure'

Mark Mardell | 03:54 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011


At a prayer breakfast today President Obama said, "The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. Abe Lincoln said, I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go."

Mr Mubarak's defiance may have Mr Obama on his knees in prayer, but certainly not in submission. The White House is preparing, in great detail, for a world after Hosni Mubarak.

The New York Times says there is "a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately, turning over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military". The White House denys there's a single plan but does not apparently baulk at the guts of the story. The National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told the BBC: "The president has said that now is the time to begin a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition, with credible, inclusive negotiations. We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward, but all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people."

The president's spokesman has said "now means yesterday". As we go forward into February "now" presumably means the day before yesterday.

Washington is not idle. In fact, long hours are being worked with people from the administration forcefully relaying the same message time and time again to the members of the Egyptian government and the army. They are saying that Mr Mubarak has lost the confidence of the Egyptian people and the international community. But Western diplomats frankly admit the levers at their disposal may be insufficient to oust him.

The Egyptian president adopted his own envoy for a blunt message back to the US. He chose one of the best known journalists in America, ABC's Christiane Amanpour, to relay it. In an off-camera, on-the-record interview he told her that Mr Obama was a good man but he doesn't understand Egypt. Mr Mubarak said he's fed up. He would like to step down but chaos and the Muslim Brotherhood would surely follow.

The Vice-President Omar Suleiman also predicted chaos if Mr Mubarak resigned, saying it would leave a body without a head.

Meanwhile the Obama administration is quietly but aggressively preparing a road map for the world after Mr Mubarak. It apparently includes taking a sterner public tone with allies in the region. Mr Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to welcome his announcement that neither he nor his son would stand in the 2013 elections. He also told the Yemeni leader that he needs to follow up with concrete reforms and asked that Yemeni security forces show restraint and refrain from violence against demonstrators who are exercising their right to free association.

Whether or not this crisis is one of those that forces Mr Mubarak to his knees, Friday is the day of public prayer in the Muslim world and has been designated by demonstrators as the "day of departure". Washington is praying they are right.

White House emboldened by Egypt bloodshed

Mark Mardell | 03:52 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


Amid the violence on the streets of Cairo one pro-Mubarak demonstrator holds aloft a hand made sign reading "Shut up Obama".

But the disorder on the streets has only sharpened the Obama's administration appetite for a confrontation. ABC says Obama is "very concerned" that President Hosni Mubarak is delaying. The Wall Street Journal says the White House has a new plan for a speedy transfer of power. The New York Times says the CIA is war-gaming how that will play in the region.

However you put it, it amounts to one thing. The White House, as much as the pro-democracy protesters, is demanding "Mubarak must go".

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has telephoned the new vice-president and intelligence chief of two decades, Omar Suleiman, to tell him immediately to seize the opportunity for a transition to a more democratic society. That transition must start now. She said that the violence was shocking and told him that they must investigate the violence and hold those responsible accountable.

You might have thought that after all their initial pussyfooting caution, the bloodshed might have given the Obama administration second thoughts about whether it was wise to back the protesters and scorn Mubarak's promise to go in September. Not a bit of it. If anything it has emboldened it to be more open about its wishes and made it more determined to winkle him out.

Others have joined the fray. Shortly after a very rare meeting with the US president, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement:

"The rapidly deteriorating situation in Egypt leads me to the conclusion that President Mubarak needs to step down and relinquish power. It is clear that the only institution in Egypt that can restore order is the army, but I fear that for it to do so on behalf of a government led by or involving President Mubarak would only escalate the violence and compromise the army's legitimacy."

A Western diplomat tells me that their best intelligence suggests that secret police were among those causing the violence and that it was almost certainly orchestrated by those very close to Mubarak. He saw it as a last desperate throw of the dice by a leader who is badly misreading the public mood.

There are frantic conversations taking place between Washington and Cairo. We can't know the details but surely the main players are being urged to action. What happens on the streets is very important. It colours the outcome and may decide it. But short of bloody revolution, only the army and those in Mubarak's inner circle can force him to go.

Obama gets tough on Egypt's weakened strong man

Mark Mardell | 03:53 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011


President Barack Obama has suddenly got tough on America's ally of 30 years. What's more, he's abandoned the language of a law professor and adopted the tone of a civil rights leader. He's made it crystal clear he's on the side of the street, not the weakened strong man. As mass demonstrations turned into a revolution, under the benign but watchful eye of the army, the White House has been struggling to keep pace. Maybe now Mr Obama has caught up. Just about.

Mr Obama watched President Hosni Mubarak's defiant and grudging speech, promising he had always intended to step down in September, in the White House Situation Room in the middle of a meeting of the national security council. He evidently wasn't over-impressed by what he heard. The American president then phoned the Egyptian president. They talked for half an hour.

Then it was Mr Obama's turn to make a speech. He didn't quite call for Mr Mubarak to quit at once. He did say "an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now".

An official has told the Washington Post that the emphasis is on the word "now".

Mr Obama said that Mr Mubarak recognised that "a change must take place", adding pointedly: "All of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people."

This is a step change from Friday's talk of the need for dialogue. But if Mr Obama is being somewhat more forthright in public, the language of officials has changed completely in private. From being cagey and guarded even off the record, they are now blunt. Mr Mubarak's promise to go in September "is no longer enough", one told the BBC.

Western diplomats say that they and the US state department have come separately to the same conclusion: Mubarak must go now. Real reform will not work while he is at the helm.

But Mr Obama's most important shift was to give whole-hearted support to the Egyptians on the street, who Mr Mubarak portrayed a couple of hours before as violent looters motivated by some sinister political force.

Mr Obama was no longer the law professor talking of "legitimate grievances". He was the man whose political career has been driven by the spirit of the US civil rights movement, telling Egyptians their passion and dignity were an inspiration to the rest of the world. His rhetoric soared as he became almost the guarantor of a successful revolution:

"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren."

He lavished praise on the "professionalism and patriotism" of the Egyptian army in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. Without the army the revolution would be over, and Mr Obama and his whole administration is trying to ensure it stays on side. He said: "We've seen tanks covered with banners, and soldiers and protesters embracing in the streets. And going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful."

Mr Obama sounded as if he wanted to join the Egyptians on the streets. The army, the people, the American president. It is a powerful alliance. He may redeem himself with the demonstrators. It is less certain Mr Mubarak will take a blind bit of notice.

Has Mubarak offered too little, too late?

Mark Mardell | 22:36 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 1 February 2011

The White House has got what it asked for. But it is not enough. It wanted an orderly transition. President Hosni Mubarak says he will stay until September to ensure that. It was the message that Obama's envoy delivered face-to-face: don't stand in the autumn elections. For a while, the Obama administration wasn't sure the Egyptian president would buy it. But he has. Now an American official has told the BBC: "It is no longer enough."

Senator John Kerry said this morning that the Egyptian president should retire gracefully in September. After the announcement that this is what he will do, the senator has issued a statement:

"It remains to be seen whether this is enough to satisfy the demands of the Egyptian people for change. We arrived at this point because millions of Egyptians spoke with one voice and exercised fundamental rights we Americans hold dear. They made it clear the future they want is one of greater democracy and greater economic opportunity. Now, that future belongs to them to shape. The Egyptian people are writing the next chapter of Egyptian history."

A Western diplomat tells the BBC they and the US state department have taken a while independently to reach the same conclusion, but Mr Mubarak has to go now. "It's hard to see how the process of reform could work with him at the helm."

The reason for this change of heart? It is too little, too late. One official said: "If he had given this speech last week, it would have been great." Western analysts seem certain that the people on the street won't accept him hanging on for months, and not enough of them will engage in negotiations or the process of reform. It's likely they will cold-shoulder Mubarak and only talk to the people around him, hoping they will see that he has to be shoved out.

So far the White House has made no official comment. The president will speak within the hour. It won't be easy - he can't begin to say publicly what is being said privately.

Expecting big news

Mark Mardell | 19:48 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Western diplomats anticipate that President Mubarak will shortly make a statement saying that he won't stand in September's elections. Diplomats have told the BBC that they believe he will dissolve parliament to embark on wide-ranging constitutional reforms but he wishes to stay until the end of his term in September.

The State Department briefing has been cancelled the White House briefing due to start at 2.30 Washington time, delayed with no start time given. The New York Times says that President Obama has used his envoy Frank Wisner to tell President Mubarak not to run again.

This fits with what we've been hearing.

How tough is the message?

Mark Mardell | 13:18 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


President Obama's envoy Frank Wisner is now in Cairo.

He's a 72-year-old state department veteran, a former ambassador to Egypt who knows President Mubarak well. The state department says his job will be to reinforce the administration's message that there must be real change.

Just how direct that message will be is uncertain. The White House has held a meeting of experts, seeking ideas about how to deal with the crisis. One participant told the BBC that the overriding impression was that the administration is stuck with a conundrum and a question: President Mubarak can't be part of the equation ...but if he's not going what do you do?

One idea floated was sending a representative to send him a very blunt message: It's all over. While the White House continues to insist it is not the job of the US government to pick leaders, the strong view in Washington is that it wants Mubarak to go, and the army to take over until elections can be held - but President Obama believes its counter productive to say so in public.

Former presidential candidate John Kerry, who keeps in close touch with the administration, is telling President Mubarak that he should make it clear that he and his son won't run in the next elections. But the Egyptian president is, so far, ignoring all this kind advice.

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