US president will use visit to London to announce new co-operation to tackle long-term challenges
by Nicholas Watt
Barack Obama will announce during his first state visit to Britain this week that the White House is to open up its highly secretive national security council to Downing Street in a move that appears to show the US still values the transatlantic “special relationship”.
A joint National Security Strategy Board will be established to ensure that senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic confront long-term challenges rather than just hold emergency talks from the “situation room” in the White House and the Cobra room in the Cabinet Office.
Obama will arrive in London on Tuesday from Dublin on the second leg of a European tour that will also take him to Warsaw and the G8 summit in Deauville in France on Thursday and Friday. The president, who will stay at Buckingham Palace with his wife, Michelle, will hold separate meetings with David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
The main talks between Cameron and Obama on Wednesday will cover Afghanistan, Libya and counter-terrorism. The two leaders, who will serve the food at a barbecue hosted by their wives in the Downing Street garden for US and UK military veterans, will make two major announcements:
• Tom Donilon, the US national security adviser, will work more closely with his British counterpart, Sir Peter Ricketts, to examine longer-term issues on the new National Security Strategy Board. Ricketts is to be replaced in the summer by Kim Darroch, currently Britain’s permanent representative to the EU.
• A new service personnel joint taskforce, involving the veterans minister, Andrew Robathan, will co-ordinate work to help veterans on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain believes it can learn from the US which has an excellent track record in helping veterans settle into civilian life. The US is keen to learn from Britain’s work in helping veterans with mental problems.
Britain believes that co-operation between the British and US national security councils marks a significant step. One British government source said: “The US and UK already work closely together on many national security issues. The new board will allow us to look ahead and develop a shared view of emerging challenges, how we should deal with them, and how our current policy can adapt to longer-term developments.”
The new board is a rare step by the White House, which guards the secrecy of the national security council. Founded in 1947 by Harry Truman, the NSC was in 1949 placed in the executive office of the president, who chairs its meetings.
Cameron tried to replicate the council when he established a body with the same name on his first full day as prime minister. It is chaired by the prime minister and designed to co-ordinate the work of the three Whitehall departments responsible for foreign affairs – the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.
One government source said that Ricketts and Donilon would have to tread with care. “There is a little bit of disconnect between the two. The US national security adviser is a political appointment, whereas Sir Peter Ricketts is a civil servant. But this does make sense. We have a highly developed relationship with the USA where our military and intelligence officials work closely together. This is a useful move.”
The main discussions between Obama and Cameron will focus on Afghanistan, on which they have a similar outlook. They both aim to draw down combat troops and recognise that elements of the Taliban will have to be involved in a political settlement.
Obama told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1: “I agree with – and what I think prime minister Cameron would be the first to say – is that we’re not going to militarily solve this problem. We can’t expect Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, suddenly to have the same institutions that an advanced and well-developed democracy has. What we can do, I think, is use the efforts that we’ve made militarily to broker a political settlement that ensures the Afghanistan constitution is abided by, that elections remain free and fair, that human rights including women’s rights are respected.”
Asked whether this would mean talking to the Taliban, Obama said: “Ultimately, it means talking to the Taliban, although we’ve been very clear about the requirements for any kind of serious reconciliation. The Taliban would have to cut all ties to al-Qaida. Renounce violence. And they would have to respect the Afghan constitution. Now those are some fairly bare-bones requirements.”
Obama warned that he would be prepared to launch another raid into Pakistan, following the shooting of Osama bin Laden, if that was necessary “to secure the United States”. Jack Caravelli, an official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, told BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday that Washington had contingency plans to undertake operations in Pakistan if a perfect storm occurred in which terrorists gained control of its nuclear weapons.
The Cameron and Obama talks on Libya will be mildly less friendly. Britain recognises that Washington made clear from the outset that its military involvement would be brief.
But one government source said: “Some people in Europe and Britain think that if only the US had continued with the heavy lifting then this might have been brought to a speedy conclusion. But the US military think: the bloody Europeans have bitten off more they can chew and once again expect us to do the heavy work.”