Matthew Dancona

On the road with Gordon in the search for hearts and minds

It was a gamble, more than Gordon Brown’s aides had cared to admit.

On the road with Gordon in the search for hearts and minds
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It was a gamble, more than Gordon Brown’s aides had cared to admit.

It was a gamble, more than Gordon Brown’s aides had cared to admit. Every last detail of the new Prime Minister’s press conference at Camp David had been planned, from the tone of the Prime Minister’s voice to the colour of his tie. The President’s team had taken issue with a few passages of Mr Brown’s text, and amendments were made. But it was not the content of the text that mattered. It was — well — the whole damn thing.

As we waited in the sweltering Maryland heat of Camp David, on a huge expanse of immaculate turf, a driving range doubling up as a helipad for three military choppers, a Marine asked if we were being looked after, whether we had been given sodas and cookies: Camp David is a naval base, so they welcome you ‘on board’ when you arrive. The rules are as old as the sea: you can have soda and cookies, but you can’t, for some reason, have snuff. No, sir.

Then, ambling over in their suits — a Brown demand, obligingly met by the First Host — were the President and Prime Minister. Bush kicked off in typical style with a tribute to Brown as ‘a principled man who really wants to get something done’, who, in his handling of the car bomb plot, had ‘proved your worthiness as a leader. And I thank you for that.’ Bush is big on thanking people, and I noticed that Brown picked up the habit during his US trip, thanking the President ‘for his leadership on Darfur’ the very next day in his speech at the UN.

But at Camp David the PM did something different, and altogether more daring. In response to the President’s off-the-cuff welcome, he delivered nothing less than a mini-speech (‘ladies and gentlemen’) on the character of the special relationship, Churchill’s vision of the ‘joint inheritance’, UN Resolution 1723, the Middle East Peace Process, and the ‘full and frank discussions’ that he and his host had held. No toothpaste gags, no response to the line Bush had fed him about the bowling match the night before between the US and UK delegations, no reference to the ‘Brownies’ artfully placed on the menu for their dinner à deux in the Laurel Cabin on Sunday.

As one of the PM’s allies noted later: ‘It was fascinating to watch Gordon turn his pathologies into assets.’ Precisely the characteristics that used to be mocked — the awkwardness, the lack of shoulder-punching matiness, the absence of niceties — were being turned into diplomatic weapons. Brown was trying to use his personality both to preserve the special relationship and to change it: to make it primarily a bond between two countries, rather than two individuals. What, he likes to say slyly, it has always been: by which he means, what it always should have been.

The British officials watched anxiously at the back to see how the Commander-in-Chief would respond. From where I was sitting, ten feet away from the podiums, Bush certainly looked quizzical, his tanned features creased with the puzzled expression of a patient who has been sent a new nurse. From time to time, he gazed distractedly beyond the camera crews to the horizon of the forest and the Catoctin Mountains. The poker player’s ‘tell’ was the occasional swing of his loafered right foot behind his left leg.

But those who think Bush was royally stitched up by Brown are wrong. As the event proceeded, you could see the President grasping fully what was going on. In his every answer, solemn nod and rearrangement of his notes, the PM was saying: no offence, but I have to do this. Business, not personal. We’re still on the same page.

Content that the new nurse might lack the bedside manner of Tony but would still deliver the correct medication, George did Gordon a big favour in hailing his guest as the ‘humorous Scotsman’, a ‘glass-half-full man, not a glass-half-empty guy’, with whom he had been able to ‘relax and share some thoughts’. Which was the President’s way of saying: OK, you do it your way, I’ll stick with mine. But don’t forget who’s boss here. OK?

Later, in a dim-lit bar at the Waldorf Astoria, in New York, the PM sipped a glass of wine and did his best (not very well) to conceal his delight and relief that the plan had come off. He had been upstairs at the hotel with Bill Clinton, discussing Hillary’s prospects: the ex-President believes that Barack Obama made a serious error in the Democrat contenders’ YouTube debate in Charleston, South Carolina last month by declaring that he would be happy to meet the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. And it is hard to imagine that Bill and Gordon didn’t share a joke or two about George.

As the PM unwound — yes, he does, you know — his aides sipped on Heinekens and pondered the semiotics of the day. This had not been an exercise in distancing, but something more subtle. Mr Brown has high ambitions on the international stage, as he made clear on Tuesday with his announcement of a new initiative on the UN Millennium Development Goals (a ‘coalition of conscience’, no less), his insistence that the Doha trade round is not dead, and his round-the-clock push for the Security Council resolution on Darfur that was finally passed as we were in the air heading home. And in this respect, Prime Minister Brown confronts the reality that faces every holder of his office: namely that, whatever your convictions, opinions or prejudices, you cannot do anything much as a global policymaker without the support of the US. Mr Brown may not want to be a poodle, but still less does he want to be a stray. I was struck by the number of times he said that he would go into bat to defend the US-UK relationship, even on the decision to go to war against Iraq, even if he was the only person in the room willing to do so.

To be on the road with a new Prime Minister on his first big international adventure is to observe him before the habits and resentments set in. Things are always more interesting when they are still a little provisional, rough-edged and buzzing with new enthusiasm. This was Brown as a first-timer, still feeling his way into the job, taking his band across the Atlantic to try and break America.

It suits him. I think he is beginning to clock how much more appealing he is as a new boy than a know-all. One of the lessons he says he has learnt in the past few weeks is that things happen, events come and go, you have to keep your focus on the fundamentals. Not quite que sera, sera, but as close as this PM will ever get to it.

The sense of liberation from the miserable 13-year-long political marriage to Blair is palpable. Every morning he clearly awakes and thinks not only ‘I am Prime Minister!’, but ‘Another day I don’t have to work for him!’ As the Blairites point out bitterly, but with some justice, one of the reasons Brown will enjoy being PM is that he won’t have his most senior colleague phoning him every day asking him when he intends to leave office. The irony, of course, is that like a divorced couple who are at last relieved of the daily burden of hating each other, Blair and Brown are getting on a treat. Many times during the visit, the PM referred approvingly to the fine work ‘Tony’ is doing in the Middle East or reminisced about the trip ‘Tony and I’ took to Australia in the early 1990s when they sat with a blank piece of paper and wrote down what needed to be done to the Labour party.

According to one staffer: ‘He knows what Tony gave him and that he needs to fill that gap somehow. All the consultation with colleagues is partly a reflection of that.’ At any rate, it was remarkable that, on his very first visit to the back of the plane to chat to the hacks as Prime Minister, Brown chose to bring the Foreign S ecretary with him. It is only a few months since David Miliband was being urged to run for the leadership. Now, the PM treats him like a brilliant protégé, inviting him to take the lead on matters of foreign policy: there is no doubt which of them is boss, but this was more than gesture politics. Old Gordon would never have been sufficiently comfortable to share the limelight on such an occasion. ‘He is completely bloody unrecognisable to what he was like before,’ said one long-time aide, mopping his brow in mock relief. This is spin, of course. But it is not just spin.

The Darfur resolution was the most glittering souvenir in the prime ministerial knapsack as we headed back home. But the less-noticed strategic prize was persuading Bush to say so much about ‘ideo-logy’: the shorthand used by the President for what Brown calls the ‘the battle for hearts and minds’ in the struggle against international terrorism. His staff are not yet happy with this slogan — too vague, too resonant of Vietnam — but it captures something more than the usual bromides about ‘shared values’ and the need to be nice to people.

The war on terror has frequently been compared to the Cold War, not least by the President — if only to impress upon the public its certain longevity. But Brown has something much more specific in mind when he makes the comparison. In their talks on Sunday and Monday, Bush was most nervous about what Brown would say on Iraq and the forthcoming report on military progress by General David Petraeus. But the PM kept drawing the President back to the need to engage in a cultural, intellectual and counter-insurgency programme of the kind that was fought against Soviet communism in the decades after the war.

Brown’s own thinking has shifted on this matter, and the turning-point was the alleged involvement of doctors in the car -omb plot. In the past, he has tended to believe that the root cause of global terrorism was economic deprivation: or, to put it another way, that trade and aid would be the core of strategic triumph over our Islamist adversaries. The inferno at Glasgow airport sealed in his mind a shift of analysis: that twisted ideas, rather than poverty, were the true basis of the problem. In the PM’s eyes, it follows that the next phase of the struggle must be more subtle, much of it completely concealed.

In this, he has recently been inspired by a 1999 book on the CIA and the cultural cold war, Who Paid the Piper?, by the British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders. He was particularly intrigued by the CIA’s management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as ‘the juggernaut of American culture’. Brown cites the success of the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom in harnessing the intellectual firepower of a generation of authors and artists ranging from Arthur Koestler and Tennessee Williams to Stephen Spender and Jackson Pollock, and funding journals such as Encounter, Transition and Partisan Review.

Does this mean that MI5 will now be spending millions on anti-Islamist magazines and that the London Symphony Orchestra is going to be dispatched to the Middle East with bugs in the cellos? Not quite. But it does mean finding resources for moderate Muslims and cutting off funding to anyone else: Brown believes that the Old Left’s version of ‘multiculturalism’ led us to the insanity of financing groups precisely because they were extreme. Expect big changes on this front.

He has also been impressed by the work of David Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer and academic anthropologist who now works for the US State Department and is the senior counter-insurgency adviser to the multinational force in Iraq. Kilcullen’s core belief is that the war on terror is better described as a ‘global counter-insurgency’: he refers to the ‘information battlefield’ but insists that the West’s strategy must be radically localised; each region, each village, needs a different counter-terrorist tactic.

The Brown camp agrees that the propaganda campaigns adopted by Bush’s long-time ally Karen Hughes, the US under-secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, have been much too centralised and old-fashioned. The Kilcullen Doctrine on winning ‘hearts and minds’ is based not on making local people feel affection for you, but on persuading them that you can protect them better than the enemy. In Iraq, Kilcullen wrote in June, ‘protecting and controlling the population is do-able, but destroying the enemy is not’.

Meanwhile, young Muslims drawn to the flames of Islamism — in West Yorkshire as much as Basra — have to be targeted for ‘ideological conversion’, a process Kilcullen compares to the tactics used to keep young men out of street gangs. Easier said than done, of course. But this is the way Brown’s counter-terrorist thinking is heading: away from invasions, ‘crusades’, and ‘shock and awe’ and towards something that owes much more to a Cold War theorist such as George Kennan than it does to Donald Rumsfeld or, indeed, to Tony Blair.

Brown is right to be using this time to think deeply and experimentally, for he will never enjoy such freedom again. The honeymoon will end, the mood will harden, the Tories will regroup and renew their attack. He knows as well as anyone that David Cameron will not let the election slip this easily from his grasp.

The road ahead of Gordon Brown will often be rocky and sometimes blocked. Its ending its unknowable. But, in the motorcade speeding down Second Avenue towards the airport, one could only reflect that this PM’s greatest triumph to date has been to persuade the world that he is not an exhausted traveller, limping and grey after ten years in office, but a man at the very start of a journey.