Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Tim Pawlenty became the first Republican White House hopeful to start showing television adverts in Iowa, the state that holds the first contest in the presidential caucus and primary calendar. The 30-second advert was aired today, and will run til 3 July at a cost of $50,000.

Pawlenty is concentrating a lot resources in Iowa, where he needs a strong finish in February to win the GOP nomination. He formally announced his bit for the presidency at an event in Des Moines, Iowa, last month. He will spend about 15 days in the state next month ahead of an important straw poll in Ames on 13 August.


2. Michele Bachmann will also be descending on Iowa, where she will officially launch her presidential campaign on Monday. Several weeks of keeping a low profile mean that Bachmann is still riding the positive wave of her strong performance in last week's primary debate.

Her conservative credentials as the grassroots Tea Party candidate mean she is likely to do well in Iowa. The fact that she was born in the state and lived there until she was 12 will also help. The announcement might even take place in Waterloo, the place of her birth.

3. Republican women rushed to defend their party after a prominent Democrat said the party was waging "a war on women". Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida representative and the new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said last month that the opposition's anti-woman stance would "not only restore but possibly help us exceed the president's margin of victory in the next election."

It is obviously a sore point for a party whose top ranks are dominated by white men. Women -- notably not including Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann -- jumped to defend the GOP.

"The Republican agenda is indeed pro-woman," said Kristi Noem, representative for South Dakota. "It is pro-woman because it is pro-small business, pro-entrepreneur, pro-family and pro-economic growth."

Expect the battle for the female vote to heat up.

4. Predicatbly, the love-in between Jon Huntsman and President Barack Obama is coming to an end. Huntsman wrote that Obama was a "remarkable leader" after he was appointed to serve as ambassador to China. He distanecd himself from these words on Fox News' Hannity show last night:


Asked if he still thinks the president is a "remarkable leader", Huntsman said: "No. I think he has failed in a number of ways both in terms of economic governance and stewardship and also internationally."

He added: "I wrote that after I was appointed. I thought he was a remarkable leader for appointing a Republican to a position as important and sensitive as the U.S. ambassadorship to China."

5. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head in January, is to release a joint memoir with her husband, Mark Kelly.

They will collaborate with author Jeffrey Zaslow, who worked on Randy Pausch's bestselling The Last Lecture. The book will focus on their separate careers (Kelly is a Nasa astronaut) and their relationship, including the moment that Giffords was shot as she spoke to consituents in Tucson, in an attack which killed six people and injured 12. Kelly said:

After thinking about it, and talking about it, we decided it was the right thing to do to put our words and our voices on paper and tell our story from our point of view. It's been really touching to us to see how much support there is for Gabby and her recovery, and how much interest there is in how she's doing and her story.

Giffords, pictured below before and after the shooting, is undergoing outpatient treatment after being released from a Houston hospital last week.


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.