‘Nato solidarity more important than winning in Afghanistan’ (er…)

Quentin Peel had a slightly bizarre column in the FT yesterday, bemoaning the Europeans’ paltry response to Obama’s request for more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. As he notes, European governments are “terrified of offending hostile public opinion that cannot understand – and has never understood – why their soldiers are dying in such a distant land”. He continues [emphasis added],

Part of the problem is that the Nato allies went into the war in 2003 without a common strategy, or a common narrative. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands persuaded their parliaments that the job was about peace-keeping, not fighting Taliban insurgents. Germany and France also sent special forces to join the US in Operation Enduring Freedom – fighting the Taliban and hunting for al-Qaeda – but they kept it secret.

The British, Dutch and Danes are now much more open that it is a real war, and that Nato’s survival is on the line. Others, including the Germans, are not. There is a logical reason.

“The more the Europeans build it up as make-or-break for Nato, or suggest ‘our security is on the line’, the more they set themselves up for failure,” says a European diplomat. “By keeping it low key, they keep an exit strategy.”

The danger for Nato is two-fold. Without greater European commitment, the war will be “Americanised”, and risk becoming yet more unpopular in Europe. As for the alliance, it is becoming a “coalition of the willing” by default. The fundamental assumption of Nato solidarity is called into question. That is more dangerous than losing the war.

Um – what? How on earth can losing the war be less dangerous than erosion of Nato solidarity, given that Nato doesn’t seem to be able to find anywhere else in the world, besides Afghanistan, where it clearly still has a role?

If policymakers in Nato member states are really going to set out a compelling narrative about why we’re at war in Afghanistan, then surely that narrative needs to rest on what Nato’s trying to achieve in Afghanistan.  “Safeguarding Nato coherence” does not seem a very satisfactory answer to that question.

Civilianise ESDP

Earlier in the week, Charlie talked about the Tories’ weakness on foreign and defense policy. In many ways, he gave voice to a view felt across the British foreign and defence community. That the Tories do not have a serious and detailed set of national security policies that can be turned into government action. The contrast to the Obama administration is stark. The Democratic President has been able to populate his administration with America’s finest foreign policy thinkers, all of whom have thought deeply about what a Democratic foreign policy should look like.

The Tories are not the only ones blame for the dearth of policy thinking. The British system of government militates against party-based subject-mater expertise. Parties are meant to develop the broad strokes of ideas, which will then be developed and implemented by officials if they enter government. It is therefore very difficult for the Opposition to attract experienced foreign policy thinkers. The pay is low and the rewards are not as attractive as in the U.S. The most a future British Prime Minister can offer is junior ministerial portfolio, working to a senior politician whose background may not be well-suited for a security-related job.

But one issue can be parked at the Tories’ door. Having canvassed a wide section of the London-based foreign policy community, the one issue that keeps coming up time and again is the Tories’ euro-scepticism. As one senior (and decidedly euro-sceptic) thinker told me: “The Tories are rowing back on the pragmatic NATO-EU policy that Malcolm Rifkind developed when he was Defence Secretary.” A widely-respected senior military commander told me only two days ago: “It’s as if a veil descends across their faces when Europe comes up. They don’t even want to engage. But this is not about a European army; it’s about being able to work with allies.”

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Credit crunch = peacekeeping crunch

News from Lebanon:

BEIRUT: Poland has said it may withdraw its troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), prompting fears of a “crunch” in international peacekeeping resources as governments slash spending in the face of the global financial crisis. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Saturday that his government would “certainly take a decision” this year on the continued presence of almost 500 troops that the country contributes to UNIFIL.

Last month Poland announced it would cut its contribution to a peacekeeping force in Chad in a bid to save money.  “We will consider whether it makes sense to continue certain foreign missions,” Tusk said.

His comments come as his government announced it is cutting spending by almost $5 billion as the global economic crisis deepens, and there are fears that other countries could follow suit and seek to save money by withdrawing troops from expensive overseas peacekeeping missions.

Last week France announced cuts in such missions around the world, including the withdrawal of two naval vessels from UNIFIL’s maritime contingent, which patrols Lebanese waters to prevent arms smuggling into the country by sea.

The problem stems from the way the countries are reimbursed for the peacekeepers they provide. The UN offers a fixed amount for each solider that a country contributes to a peacekeeping mission, regardless of how much it costs the country to pay the soldier.

The system means that poorer countries are able to contribute troops without cost to their domestic budget. But in richer countries, where soldiers earn more than the UN’s reimbursement, national governments are footing the bill for contributing troops to the missions.

On this reckoning, the financial crisis means that the West will increasingly demand that poor countries take on peacekeeping – more UN and AU missions, then, and less from NATO. Poor governments may well respond with enthusiasm, as UN subsidies will help keep their generals happy. Peace operations will remain low-tech and dogged by fights between “those who pay” and “those who play”… Not a happy picture.

The Conservative Party’s Achilles’ Heel: National Security and Defence

Once upon a time the Conservative Party was the natural home for national security policy. Not anymore. A combination of factors including the very necessary rebranding of the party; a focus on climate change, health and education has meant national security policy (in its broadest sense: defence, foreign affairs, and intelligence) is now, arguably, Cameron’s weakest policy area.

When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, he deliberately set out a different vision than that of his predecessors by focusing on policy areas such as health, education and climate change. This was both a reflection of a shift in strategy – to move the Tories away from its ‘nasty party’ image but also because some of the best minds in the Conservative Party were thinking progressively on these issues (health in particular).

During this process of change national security policies largely became second order issues for the new leader. Cameron delegated these policy areas to colleagues, safe in the knowledge, he assumed, that each would be managed by a safe pair of hands. But he underestimated two forces at play. First the decline in knowledge and experience among Conservative MPs (which is still more than the Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined) in these policy areas and second; a lack of fresh and innovative thinking on national security within the party.

Arguably David Cameron’s first mistake was to assume that experience comes with expertise and sound judgement. In a speech to the think tank IISS on terrorism and national security he was quick to make reference to the ‘wealth of experience’ he had, citing numerous Lords and Dames he had recruited. The message was clear: I’m young and fresh but I have experienced politicians and practitioners on tap. But I’m reminded of a brilliant quote by Chris Donnelly, the former special adviser at NATO – who’s now at Oxford University:

In a period of stability and slow evolution our greatest asset is our experience. But at times of revolution our experiences can be fatal baggage. We can no longer assume that, because something we did worked well in the past, it is likely to continue to do so in current circumstances. If we are to survive living in a revolution, we will need to make a correspondingly revolutionary shift in the way we think about both the risk and the response.

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The more ruthless Obama gets, the more I admire him

From New York magazine’s blog:

During the election season we heard a lot about “60” — that magic number of Senate seats that would allow the Democrats to block any filibuster, and, Republicans feared, tax the American people into submission. When all the votes were tallied, they came up just one seat short (assuming Al Franken eventually gets his seat). So close! Reasonably, the Democrats should be able to attract at least one measly Republican to their side, but who wants to even deal with that? Luckily, President Obama has come up with a solution: Fill the empty Commerce Secretary post with Republican New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg. As we know, our wonderful system calls for New Hampshire’s Democratic governor to pick Gregg’s successor in such an event, and one would assume he’d choose another Democrat. And voilà, 60!

It’s a clever but slightly crass move — nobody even knows what the Commerce Secretary does anyway, so who cares who’s in there? And Obama will fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Senate in his favor with what appears to be another bipartisan gesture.

Central Europe versus Russia

Last week, I saw the leader of the Hungarian opposition, Viktor Orban, call for a new central European security alliance against Russia.

Orban warned that the EU needed to take a tougher line with Russia. He said: “Russia has made two requirements that are not acceptable for European civilisation. Firstly, it has said it has legitimate security interests outside of Russia, so it can decide, for example, whether other countries can join NATO or not. That’s dangerous.”

He went on: “Secondly, Russia wants to buy out alternative sources of energy around the region, and to monopolise gas deliveries to the whole region, which is totally against our values.”

Orban said that the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 testified to “the weakness of common EU security policy”, and added: “We in central Europe have a different approach to emerging Russian power, and it’s obvious that sooner or later, central Europe will emerge as an independent player in security.”

He also warned that Germany was playing a “dangerous game” with Russia, by not checking its expansionism more aggressively.

There’s some domestic politics going on here. Orban’s ouster in Hungary, Ferenc Gyurscany, has taken a much more conciliatory stance towards Russia and Gazprom, including supporting Gazprom’s Blue Stream pipeline over the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline. Gyurscany said he wanted Hungary to become an “energy hub” in Europe. You can practically smell the vodka  on his breath.

Still, now Hungary’s economy is deep in recession,  Gyurscany may be on the way out, and Orban sounds like he is likely to introduce a much tougher eastern foreign policy.

A classic viral moment

[youtube:http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=kica8hmSdAM&feature=related]

This video interview shows Derick Ashong, an Obama supporter, getting approached by a (presumably pro-Clinton) interviewer outside Obama and Clinton’s third debate in February last year.  Here’s how the New York Times described what happened next:

“So why are you for Obama?” he asked. It was clear from his approach that he expected a dimwitted answer, an expectation that he was about to talk to another acolyte smitten by Senator Obama’s rock star persona.

But, as it turned out, Mr. Ashong, who was raised in Ghana and elsewhere, was glad to be asked. For almost six minutes — about a century in broadcast television years — Mr. Ashong, who has an immigrant’s love of democracy and the furrowed brow of a Brookings fellow, held forth on universal health care, single-payer approaches and public-private partnerships.

“A lot of these H.M.O.’s are publicly traded companies anyway, but I don’t think we want to create a market for health care per se, like we don’t want to create a futures market in health care,” he said. And so on.

Cute stuff. Highly informative. But not the kind of political discourse that generally captures a wider audience.

But here’s the weird part. On Feb. 2, the interview of Mr. Ashong was posted on a YouTube channel called “The Latest Controversy,” where supporters of both Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Obama are asked very aggressively to justify their choice of candidates. The video blew up, drawing more than 850,000 views. And after that huge response to his policy analysis, Mr. Ashong decided to double down and explain the emotional component of his support for Obama in a follow-up video that was posted Feb. 11 and received 300,000 views.

Taken together, that means a guy who was looking to (anonymously) show a little love for a candidate was able to look into the camera for more than 13 minutes combined and draw in more than a million clicks with an impassioned but reasoned pitch.

Ashong will be in the UK next month, and speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues.  Details: 6.30pm on 26 February in the Grand Committee Room in Parliament. More from the NYT piece after the jump. Continue reading