Monthly Archives: March 2009

Gideon Rachman

Pinn illustration

Europeans have long worshipped Barack Obama from afar. Now the beloved one is paying his first visit as US president to the old continent. Yet there is every indication that Europe’s leaders are about to stiff him. Read more

Gideon Rachman

Here in London, everybody is going G-20 crazy. Understandable, of course, since this is the biggest gathering of world leaders that has Britain has hosted for many years. But the G-20 is just the first leg of a four-stop tour by President Obama. First there is the London meeting, then the Nato summit in Strasbourg, then the US-EU meeting in Prague and then a two-day state visit to Turkey. In fact, my guess is that it will probably be a five-legged tour – with Obama going on to Afghanistan for a surprise vist, after Turkey.

The assumption here in London is that it is the G-20 meeting that matters most. But I think that could well be wrong. If you look at Obama’s four stops, I think the most important could well be Turkey.

The G-20 summit brings together the most high-powered group of leaders and is all about the economic crisis. But, as the FT reports today, the communique is already pre-cooked – and looks like it will be pretty meagre fare, with a boiler-plate call to resist protectionism as its centre-piece. There will be plenty of hoopla at the Nato summit. But, once again, the big decisions – in particular about Afghanistan – have already been taken elsewhere. Mr Obama is likely to enliven the US-EU summit by making a big speech on arms control. But whilst these occasions are always taken desperately seriously by the Europeans, they are not terribly important to the Americans who find them unwieldy and baffling.

So that leaves Turkey. Read more

Gideon Rachman

Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, announced today, is much as expected: more troops, more training for the Afghan army and police, more reconstruction and more of a focus on terrorism and Pakistan, with less emphasis on democracy-building.

The whole exercise suggests that the distinctions between the Bush and the Obama approaches to foreign policy may be less hard-and-fast than we thought. In the caricature version, it was Bush who was obsessed with the “global war on terror”, while Obama pushed idealistic ideas about democracy and human-rights. But here we have Obama ramping up the emphasis on terrorism and downplaying the liberal nation-building.

So will it work? Obama emphasised the necessary diversion of troops and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. And indeed the US troops I met in Logar province a couple of weeks ago had been re-directed at short notice from Iraq to Afghanistan. The US will end up sending roughly 21,000 more troops – which is pretty much the same number that were sent for the surge in Iraq. Even so, there will still be only 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan – compared to 140,000 at the height of the Iraq war. And, as Nato briefers were at pains to point out, Afghanistan is a larger and more populous country with much more inhospitable terrain – and with a safe haven for Taliban forces right next door in Pakistan. Read more

Gideon Rachman

Like many people in Britain, I much enjoyed the BBC’s recent adaptation of Dickens’s “Little Dorrit” – particularly since a lot of the action takes place in FT-land. There is a scene shot under Southwark Bridge and key locations like the Marshalsea and Bleeding Heart Yard still exist – and are just a few minutes walk from our offices.

But the best bits took place in the Circumlocution Office – a government department invented by Dickens that has raised baffling bureaucracy and pointless form-filling into an art form. I had assumed that, with our endlessly modernised, bench-marked and streamlined UK government, this kind of thing was safely consigned to Victorian England.

However, I have now discovered a genuine government department with a title straight out of Dickens – it is the Department of Sensitive Words. This excellent institution has been brought to my attention by a man who is trying to establish a think-tank and to use the word “Institute” in its title. Since my friend is still involved in sensitive negotiations with the Department of Sensitive Words, I have promised not to reveal his identity. Read more

Gideon Rachman

As diplomatic gaffes go, it will be hard to surpass Hillary Clinton presenting Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, with a “Re-set” button. This was meant to signify a fresh start in US-Russian relations. But unfortunately the Russian words next to the button actually translated as “Self-Destruct” – which more or less confirms the most paranoid Russian views of what the Americans have in mind for them.

Still – translation problems aside – America’s intent is clear. The Obama administration wants a new and better relationship with Russia. They want Russian help on all sorts of tricky issues, in particular Iran. If at all possible, the Americans want to cool down old arguments over issues like missile defence – and Georgia. Read more

Gideon Rachman


The world’s finest diplomats will spend weeks drafting and redrafting the communiqué that will be issued at the end of the Group of 20 summit in London next week. But why do they bother? Read more

Gideon Rachman

I stood about five feet from John McCain last night, as he gave an after-dinner speech at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels forum.  It was odd to see him wandering around the hotel lobby alone and sitting quietly in seminars, and to think that if things had turned out differently … As for the speech, it was about Afghanistan – and a pretty standard, if well-delivered, version of the case for sticking it out. According to McCain, Nato’s credibility is on the line, we can’t afford to lose, if we do then the Taliban will come back to power, terrorists will roam wild and free. But we need to level with the public or there will be a backlash. This is going to take years, there will be an upsurge in fighting initially, it’s going to be really difficult. Or as Winston Churchill once put it, “I have nothing to offer you, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Except at the Brussels forum, there is also a rather nice pastry desert.

Standing in the front row while McCain spoke was none other than his pal, Misha Saakashvili, the president of Georgia. In fact, it was something of a coup for the organisers to have both Saakashvili and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at the same event. Lavrov was brusque, aggressive, confident and even funny – in a sinister sort of way. As for Saakashvili, he was more relaxed than I would have imagined given the external and internal assualt he has recently been under. And he certainly still has firm supporters. McCain is a long-time backer. But I was struck that Richard Holbrooke, now very senior in the State Department, also spoke very warmly of him. Read more

Gideon Rachman

A blog-reader recently e-mailed me, asking to know what books I was reading. I am happy to oblige with an answer. In return, I would like some suggestions for further reading matter.

On the long plane-trips to Afghanistan, I read Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos – How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia”. As the title suggests, this is not the world’s most cheering book. But it is gripping, fast-paced and full of insider detail. Rashid is justifiably hard on the suicidal policies being pursued by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, and their cultivation of Islamist nutters. I found what he had to say very convincing, but fear it is very much a minority view-point in Pakistan.

I’ve also been reading a fascinating and fun new history book – “Scandal and Civility, Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy” by Marcus Daniel, published by Oxford University Press. Daniel’s book has a deliberately contemporary edge to it. He takes as his starting point modern lamentations about wild and irresponsible journalism (the blogosphere, Fox etc) and shows that there never was a golden age. Even at the very birth of American democracy, things were pretty rough. Tom Paine called George Washington “a cold hermaphrodite”, which makes Rush Limbaugh on Barack Obama seem positively mild. Read more

Gideon Rachman

There is a fascinating and slightly alarming story in the New York Times, suggesting that the Obama administration is thinking of extending US military action in Pakistan – in a bid to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. The idea is that bombing by pilotless drones could be extended beyond the tribal areas of Pakistan and into areas that are directly controlled by the central government, such as Baluchistan. These could be supplemented by commando raids into the area around the city of Quetta – which is believed to be the residence of Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban.

I can see the temptation. But this still strikes me as a bad idea. Of course, I don’t have the intelligence – so I cannot know how successful the current strikes have been. And if Obama thought he could get Osama, I can see it would be hard to say No. (That would be worth at least 10 points in the polls.)

But the whole thing has an uncomfortable Vietnam-era ring to it. This is the process whereby a liberal Democrat (JFK or LBJ) gets steadily sucked further into a war he doesn’t really want to fight: more troops for Vietnam/Afghanistan; raids on the enemies safe havens in neighbouring Cambodia/Pakistan – resulting in the wholesale destablisation of another country. Read more

Gideon Rachman

Troops at Nato headquarters in Kabul can buy T-shirts with a blunt message for the folks back home: “While you were chilling, we were killing.” Read more