Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. President Barack Obama announced a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. He said 10,000 US troops would pull out this year, with another 23,000 leaving by the end of September 2012 -- just before the presidential election. This will still leave 70,000 troops there, roughly equivalent to pre-surge levels.

Republican presidential candidates rushed to give their views. Here is how they have responded so far.

Tim Pawlenty: "I thought his speech tonight was deeply concerning. Look how he phrased the outcome of this war. He said we need to end the war 'responsibly.' When America goes to war, America needs to win."

Rick Santorum: "We cannot let those who've given the last full measure die in vain by abandoning the gains we've made thus far."

Mitt Romney: "I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead."

Jon Huntsman: "We need a safe but rapid withdrawal which encourages Afghans to assume responsibility."

Ron Paul: "Afghanistan was the downfall of the Soviet Union. We must act now so it is not the same for America."

Gary Johnson : "Thanks to our quick and totally justified action in 2001, al Qaeda essentially left Afghanistan nine years ago. We should have done the same."

Herman Cain : "Sadly, I fear President Obama's decision could embolden our enemy and endanger our troops."

2. Sarah Palin has denied reports that her One Nation bus tour has been cancelled. On her Facebook page, she wrote: "The coming weeks are tight because civic duty calls (like most everyone else, even former governors get called up for jury duty) and I look forward to doing my part just like every other Alaskan."


3. Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota representative and White House hopeful, will launch a three-state tour on Monday to formally announce her presidential campaign.

The tour will go through key battleground states for the upcoming primary season. Starting in Bachmann's birth state of Iowa, it will move to New Hampshire on Tuesday and conclude with a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Wednesday.

The Tea Party doyenne's trip to South Carolina will involve stops in five cities, including Rock Hill, an area where former Governor Mike Huckabee drew considerable support during his 2008 run for the White House.

Meanwhile, in Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibbi described Bachmann as "one of the scariest sights in the entire American cultural tableau", describing her as a "religious zealot" who is "grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy".

4. Herman Cain, another Republican presidential candidate, has hit out at Jon Stewart, claiming that the comedian mocked him because he is a "black conservative."

Stewart had some thoughts about Cain's suggestion that he'd only sign bills that were three pages or under if elected president. "If I'm president, treaties will have to fit on the back of a cereal box," said Stewart. "From now on, the State of the Union address will be delivered in the form of a fortune cookie. I am Herman Cain and I do not like to read."

Speaking at the Iowa Falls Fire Department below, Cain says that "the joke is on him" if he thought it was a serious suggestion, adding "I've been called every name in the book because I'm a conservative, because I'm black."



5. Jon Huntsman has been busy distancing himself from his former boss, Obama, ever since he officially entered the race for the Republican nomination, having previously described him as a "remarkable leader". But, The Note blog points out, his new logo bears more than a passing resemblance to once we've seen before.

See for yourself -- Huntsman 2012 and Obama 2008:


Imitation is the best form of flattery.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.