One of the many ironies of the Bush presidency is that George W came to power determined to spend less time on the Middle East. Well the US is now heavily engaged on all fronts – Iraq, Iran and the Middle East peace process. I spent last week in Washington talking to administration officials – and others – and this is where things seem to stand:
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When I went to the Clinton fundraiser last week, I found myself wondering why presidential election campaigns have to raise quite so much money? $100m is thought to be the target figure for the Clinton and Obama campaigns. After chatting with some "campaign insiders" (to use a horrid cliche), I think I have an answer of sorts.
Part of the answer is that a sort of "arms race" is going on – in which campaigns try to intimidate each other out of the race, by the sheer vastness of their accumulated financial resources.
But there is also a specific reason to do with the 2008 presidential election.
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I was sitting in a café in Washington, DC, last week, reading the papers, when I came across an article that almost made me choke on my blueberry muffin. The gist of the story was that the American military “surge” in Iraq is working. Baghdad is more secure; there are fewer sectarian killings; the number of bombings is down; the policy of “clear and hold” is proving effective.
My reaction had nothing to do with incredulity – although that might well have been in order, given last week’s rash of fatal explosions and mortar attacks in the Iraqi capital. No, I am ashamed to say that I caught myself thinking: “Oh no! I wrote that the surge was a bad idea. If it works, I might look silly.” Unfortunately, I think that kind of reaction is hardly unique in Washington these days. As Congress battles over a new Iraq policy, there are two Iraq wars going on. There is the real war, thousands of miles away, in which people are dying. And there is the domestic political war in Washington, where “Iraq” is above all a means to wrong-foot your political opponents. Read more >>
We are all familiar with the clichés about American insularity: the number of Congressmen who don’t have a passport, the number of Americans who have never left the US – and so on.
But, as I come to the end of a week in Washington, my overwhelming impression is how incredibly outward-looking intellectual life is in this city compared with London – despite the fact that London flatters itself that it is now the world’s most international city.
On Monday I went to a speaker-meeting at the New American Foundation – one of the plethora of DC-based think tanks, dealing with world affairs. The subject was the future of Pakistan and the speaker was a prominent Pakistani journalist. The room was packed. By contrast, I remember going to a speaker-meeting in London about a year ago with a much more obviously star-studded cast – Bill Kristol, a key neoconservative thinker; Tariq Ramadan, a central figure in the debate about Europe and Islam; and Phil Gordon, one of the leading experts on US foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. The meeting attracted maybe 30 people. You could get more people than that to turn up and listen to the deputy head of the OSCE, in Washington.
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Last night I went to see Bill and Hillary Clinton in action. Hillary was doing a fundraiser for her presidential election campaign at the Marriott Wardman Park, a big Washington hotel. This involves loads of supporters milling around a ballroom – sipping wine and scarfing cheese (not bad in both cases) – and getting a speech and a bit of glitz and good cheer in return. The biggest donors also get private meetings with the candidate – or, in Hillary’s case, with her husband.
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This week marks the start of the fifth year that the US has been involved in a war in Iraq. Every stock-taking on the TV and in the papers seems to have the same stats: 3,210 American dead; 65,000 Iraqi dead (although nobody really knows); $300 billion spent. In Congress, the Democrats are trying to pass a bill that would ensure that all American troops are out of Iraq by autumn 2008.
In his fourth anniversary message yesterday, President Bush said he would veto any bill containing an arbitrary deadline. Bush’s tone was appropriately solemn and dour. He has finally learnt to avoid "mission accomplished" boastfulness. The new tone coming out of the administration is epitomised by Bob Gates – the defence secretary. He has completely eschewed Rumsfeldian cockiness and the "stuff happens" approach. On television over the weekend he made a point of saying that he writes to the family of every American killed in Iraq.
People I know at the State Department say that the internal Washington war between the Pentagon, State and the National Security Council has effectively ended now that Rumsfeld and his coterie are out of power. Gates is also deliberately not prematurely claiming success for "the surge" of American troops into Iraq.
But behind the scenes the Bush people are actually more bullish than I have seen them for a while.
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Eminent Europeans like nothing better than the chance to hold earnest debates about the future of Europe. So the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in Berlin on March 25th are being eagerly anticipated. I can see it now – the Brandenburg Gate; the Ode to Joy; the politicians linking hands; the fireworks. And – of course – there will be a wonderful “Berlin declaration” celebrating the past and future of the European Union.
The declaration’s drafters seem to be behaving a bit like a student with an essay crisis. They have still to produce a draft. But they are promising something that will be short – two to three pages – and memorable. They realise that the chances of anything memorable being produced by a committee are close to zero. So one idea is that the whole thing should be delegated to one very clever person, with a bit of a literary flair. The said person will be locked into a room overnight, with a flask of coffee and a bottle of whisky and will be expected to emerge with something at least as good as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
But who this person is – and how they are doing – remains a closely guarded secret. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The only word out of the German government so far is that the Berlin Declaration will contain a lot about Europe’s social mission – which sounds deeply unpromising.
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Is the "surge" working? Both the American and the Iraqi governments have sounded a note of slight optimism recently. Even the news that the US is to send more troops to Iraq could be taken as a good sign – the original announcement of 21,500 extra troops was at the very low end of what "surge" advocates thought was necessary – so dispatching further troops could be a signal that the Bush administration really is committed to making this new strategy work. Robert Kagan, a neo-conservative academic (and brother of one of the intellectual architects of the surge plan) makes the case that the "surge" is already producing progress.
I would love to believe Kagan is right. But the Iraq Body Count project, which monitors the violence in Iraq more closely than any other impartial group, does not agree. Its latest weekly analysis shows no let up in the violence, and is the usual compilation of gut-wrenching stories. The Swoop foreign-policy analysis service asserts that President Bush is being told privately that the new strategy is not working.
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Next week I hope to visit the US. I will put it no more strongly than that. I have learnt not to take my right to visit America for granted – ever since being ignominiously deported in 2003.
When I rang my wife from Dulles airport to tell her that I was being put on the first plane home, she briefly feared that I was about to reveal a double life as an international drug-smuggler or pornographer. Nothing so interesting. I had simply forgotten to get myself a journalist’s visa.
The best stories of this sort usually involve the innocent foreigner being shackled or bundled off to the state penitentiary. Not in my case. The officials dealing with me were polite, sympathetic – but implacable. I protested feebly that I was a former Fulbright scholar who had lived in the US for several years. I had written for American journals, I knew important people, Britain was fighting alongside the US in Iraq. None of it cut any ice. As one of the immigration people explained: “We could have made an exception before 9/11, but not now.”
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I was in Brussels last week and talked to some of the European Union’s top foreign policy officials. The EU, of course, does not make policy for the Union on its own. But the Brussels foreign policy types do play an important role in framing and co-ordinating policy – and often serve as the public face of Europe. They are also have a unique vantage point. All European leaders spend a lot of time in Brussels. And everybody of importance – from President Bush to President Putin and the leaders of the Middle East – passes through at some point. One of the people I saw made a point of telling me how many important people had sat in the very chair in which I was now reclining. I was honoured, of course. Read more >>