|   September 24, 2014    4:02 PM ET

Declaring the world at a crossroads between war and peace, President Barack Obama vowed at the UN on Wednesday to lead a coalition to dismantle an Islamic State "network of death" that has wreaked havoc in the Middle East and drawn the US back into military action in the region.

Speaking to the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama said the U.S. would be a "respectful and constructive partner" in confronting the Islamic State militants through force. But he also implored Muslims in the Middle East to reject the ideology that has spawned groups like the Islamic State and to cut off funding that has allowed that terror group and others to thrive.

"Ultimately, the task of rejecting sectarianism and extremism is a generational task — a task for the people of the Middle East themselves," Obama said. "No external power can bring about a transformation of hearts and minds."

The president's remarks came against the backdrop of an expanded US military campaign against the Islamic State group, with airstrikes now hitting targets in both Iraq and Syria. A coalition of five Arab nations joined the US this week in the strikes in Syria: Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The British parliament is expected to be recalled on Friday to approve UK air strikes against the Islamic State.

obama

Obama addresses the 69th session of the General Assembly

The US also opened another military front with airstrikes this week against a new al-Qaida cell that the Pentagon said was "nearing the execution phase" of a direct attack on the U.S. or Europe.

The threats have drawn Obama back into conflicts in the Middle East that he has long sought to avoid, particularly in Syria, which is mired in a bloody three-year civil war. Just months ago, the president appeared to be on track to fulfil his pledge to end the US-led wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama sought to distinguish this current military campaign from those lengthy wars, declaring that he has no intention of sending US troops to occupy foreign lands.

"We will neither tolerate terrorist safe havens nor act as an occupying power," he said.

Obama also singled out a group of young British Muslims who launched a powerful campaign rejecting the actions of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, citing the #notinmyname campaign started by the ACF who have come together to take a stand against brutal violence espoused by the terror group.

The militant threat in the Middle East is just one in a series of global crises that have tested Obama this year. Russia has repeatedly flouted warning from the U.S. and Europe to stop its threatening moves in Ukraine. And leaders in West Africa have criticized Obama for not doing more to help combat an Ebola outbreak that is believed to have infected more than 5,800 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal.

Obama took on Russia directly in his remarks, accusing Moscow of sending arms to pro-Kremlin separatists, refusing to allow access to the site of a downed civilian airliner and then moving its own troops across the border with Ukraine.

"This is a vision of the world in which might makes right, a world in which one nation's borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed," Obama said. "America stands for something different."

Still, Obama held open the prospect of a resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. While he has previously expressed scepticism about a fragile cease-fire signed earlier this month, he said Wednesday that the agreement "offers an opening" for peace.

If Russia follows through on the agreement, Obama said the US will lift economic sanctions that have damaged Russia's economy but so far done little to shift President Vladimir Putin's approach.

As Obama spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat in the audience at the U.N., staring down at a stack of papers without glancing up at Obama.

obama

The President promised to dismantle the 'network of death'

The chaotic global landscape Obama described Wednesday stood in contrast to his remarks at the UN one year ago, when he spoke of diplomatic openings on multiple fronts. At the time, the US was embarking on another attempt to forge an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians and there were signs of a thaw in the decades-old tensions between the US and Iran.

The Mideast peace talks have since collapsed, though the president said Wednesday that "as bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace." And while the U.S., Iran and world powers are now in the midst of nuclear negotiations, the talks are deadlocked and there is scepticism about whether a deal can be reached by a Nov. 24 deadline.

"My message to Iran's leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass," Obama said. "We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful."

Charlotte Meredith   |   September 24, 2014    3:38 PM ET

President Barack Obama today singled out a group of young British Muslims who launched a powerful campaign rejecting the actions of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Activists led by Britain's Active Change Foundation have been spreading a message of peace online, using the same social media platforms that the terrorist group are using to propagate hate - and it hasn't gone unnoticed by the President of the United States.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Obama cited the #notinmyname campaign started by the ACF who have come together to take a stand against brutal violence espoused by the terror group.

In a powerful speech, Obama declared the world was at a crossroads between war and peace as he vowed to lead a coalition to dismantle the group's "network of death" that has wreaked havoc in the Middle East and drawn the US back into military action in the region.

Speaking to the annual gathering, Obama said the US would be a "respectful and constructive partner" in confronting the militants through force. But he also implored Middle Eastern nations to take the lead in addressing the conditions that have sparked the rise of extremists and to cut off funding to terror groups.

Speaking during a visit to New York, David Cameron said there was a "very clear" threat to the UK and other Western states, and warned about IS - also known as Isis or Isil: "These people want to kill us - They've got us in their sights."

Back in the UK young Muslims are doing what they can to show �ISIS is hiding behind a false Islam�, with the members insisting ISIS' beliefs are �nothing to do with what we stand for".

Hanif Qadir, founder of Active Change Foundation, previously explained to The Huffington Post UK the reason behind the #notinmyname movement, which has taken the internet by storm.

"Young British Muslims are sick and tired of the hate-filled propaganda the terrorists ISIS and their supporters churn out on social media,� Qadir said. �They are angry that the criminals are using the platforms to radicalise young people and spread their poisonous words of violence in the name of Islam."

One member of the youth group added: "Islam teaches us respect, mercy, peace and kindness, a faith we strongly believe in and one we want to protect from radicals and fanatics whose very existence threatens our religion.�

The Muslim Council of Britain roundly condemned the Islamic State�s actions and called for Henning�s release.

Here's how young Brits are fighting back:

Chris York   |   September 24, 2014   10:37 AM ET

Twitter on the other side of the Atlantic has gone into meltdown after President Obama did something unspeakable with a coffee cup on Tuesday.

#LatteSalute, as the gesture is being called, was captured on a White House Instagram video when Obama disembarked his Marine One helicopter in New York City on his way to the United Nations.

But saluting marines whilst holding a coffee cup is serious business in the US, with Obama's act prompting claims of pure disrespect and anti-America significance verging on treason.

The U.S. Navy manual on customs and courtesies does state that saluting is "the most important of all military courtesies" and recommends not saluting when one is "carrying articles with both hands or being otherwise so occupied as to make saluting impractical.

But some took it very personally indeed, a definite sign the US president hates America.

Obviously ol' Trump and Hannity had an opinion.

They were really, really mad.


Dan even came armed with a Wikipedia entry to back up his bluster.

Bush did send quite a few of them to war though...

This person even thought Nick Clegg was to blame.

And then the conspiracy grew even bigger.

But the calmer people out there saw it as an opportunity to rattle off a good pun or two.

And others sought to add a little perspective.

Then Sally Kohn blew the thing right out of the water...

But of course, some still had an answer for it no matter how ridiculous and petty it made them sound.

And let us not forget the time last year when Obama actually went back and apologised to a Marine he'd forgotten to salute.

Jack Sommers   |   September 24, 2014    8:07 AM ET

A little-known terrorist group that the US bombed in Syria was in the advanced stages of a plot to blow up airliners with explosives concealed in toothpaste, it has been reported.

The Khorasan Group, a relatively unknown Al Qaeda offshoot, was among the groups targetted by the attacks on Syria on Tuesday, that also hit Islamic State's enclave in the country.

One of the Khorasan Group's plots was to smuggle bombs on planes with non-metallic devices, including toothpaste tubes. It was in the final stages of planning the attack, a military source told CNN.

syria tomahawk

As well as airstrikes, the US fired Tomahawk missiles against the Khorasan Group

The group's plot was the reason behind the sudden decision to ban uncharged mobile phones and electronic devices on flights in July this year.

This followed the intelligence that the group was working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target airliners.

William C. Mayville Jr, director of operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the US homeland”.

James R Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, said last week that Khorasan were more dangerous than IS "in terms of threat to the homeland".

They are described as hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria who are not interested in seizing land but carrying out major attacks on the West.

Its members travelled to Syria but intelligence agencies believe they were sent by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Westerners already fighting there who could be more likely to get through airline and immigration security, rather than to fight Assad's forces.

“They’re in Syria but they’re not really fighting in Syria,” Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told NBC News.

“They’re using it as a place to find Western recruits.”

SEE ALSO:

Barack Obama called them "seasoned al Qaeda operatives."

"Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people," he said.

As well as around 200 air strikes launched with Arab allies on Tuesday morning against IS, the US, on its own, launched around 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles against eight Khorasan Group targets near Aleppo in the north west of the country.

These targetted “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities,” the Pentagon said.

US Attorney General Eric Holder told Yahoo News: "We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen.

"And the hitting that we did last night, I think, will probably continue until we are at a stage where we think we have degraded their ability to get at our allies or to the homeland."

Kuwaiti Muhsin al Fadhli, a long-term Al Qaeda member, is the leader of the group.

muhsin al fadhli

Muhsin al Fadhli

He has been tracked by intelligence services for nearly a decade.

In 2012, the US State Department put up a $7 million reward for information that led to the capture of the "senior facilitator and financier" who was, it said, based in Iran at the time.

Air Strikes, Hypocrisy and the Money Trail

Oggy Boytchev   |   September 23, 2014    1:23 PM ET

The chilling image of 'Jihadi John', the man in the Syrian Desert with a black scarf wrapped around his face, a glistening knife and a south London accent sent shock waves through Western capitals. Coupled with the prospect of a military and political collapse in neighbouring Iraq politicians from both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous: 'We must do something!'

But what should we do?

This morning we woke up to reports of the first air strikes against positions of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in northeast Syria around the group's stronghold of Raqqa. The aim was to degrade ISIL's military power and stop its advance. The air strikes, supported by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, were in effect carried out over a sovereign country, Syria, without UN authorisation. But leaders like David Cameron have already unilaterally decided that the Assad government has lost its legitimacy 'because of its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens'.

The fact Syria's military ally Russia, who earlier this month warned that such strikes would be a violation of international law, has not condemned them outright, and the Syrians have said that their UN representative was informed about them, suggests that it was somewhat a coordinated affair despite US protestations to the contrary. Russia will remain silent for as long as the US does not bomb Syrian government positions.

The official reason why the West decided not to support, at least not openly, the government of President Assad against ISIL was 'it's violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement, which started as part of the Arab Spring.'

The electorate in the Western democracies might be confused by our governments' selective criteria. On the one hand, we tolerate repressive regimes in our allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Kingdoms, or even Egypt, where there is no meaningful opposition. On the other, Obama and Cameron have decided that they don't like Assad's treatment of the Syrian opposition.

We are grown up enough to understand if we are told that Assad has to be removed because that would degrade Putin's military power. At a stroke, that will get rid of Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean set up under a deal with Bashar's father, Hafez, in 1971.

Getting rid of Assad will also diminish Iran's influence in the region. Iran has been supportive of Assad because the Alawite sect, from which he and most of the Syrian leadership descend, follows Shia Islam and thus forms a natural alliance with Iran in the Muslim world. Hezbollah, Iran's protege in the region, has been instrumental in reversing the tide against Assad in the earlier stages of the civil war in Syria.

With taking part in the air strikes Saudi Arabia is keen to get in on the act before the West enlists the help of its archenemy Iran in the fight against ISIL. That will be an anathema for the Saudis who fear that Iran will emerge stronger from the current crisis, like it did after the West's unfortunate Iraq adventure in 2003.

The question I would like to ask is why it seems easier to launch air strikes and even put boots on the ground than starve ISIL of money? Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who willingly took part in the airstrikes this morning albeit in unknown capacity, have been the prime funders of ISIL. Although not officially, the allegations are that they have allowed wealthy private individuals, so called 'Angel Investors' to channel money into ISIL's coffers.

There's another source of income, too. If the current going rate for hostage ransom is $5m per head, the Turkish government must have given ISIL at least a quarter of a billion dollars, if some reports are to be believed, for the recent release of their hostages. Why can't we, with all our sophisticated eves-dropping technology and computer whizzkiddery, follow the money trail and seize it?

Why can't we find those who bankroll ISIL, punish them and put them out of business? You can do that under most countries' anti-terror laws.

The Financial Times reported that a sanction-busting network created in the 1990s to sell Saddam Hussein's oil avoiding the embargo at the time has been revived in order to sell oil on behalf of ISIL from the captured oilfields and refineries. The allegations are that elements in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan knowingly facilitate this illegal trade, which is worth up to $5m a day. In a bizarre twist, it appears that Iraqi Kurds are putting money in ISIL's coffers while their forces are fighting the group on the ground. Why can't we invest a fraction of what we spent on air strikes to dismantle these mechanisms?

And finally, air strikes alone won't defeat ISIL. The organisation is clearly goading the West into direct confrontation. Once we get the first pictures of Muslim women and children killed by US missiles, no matter how isolated these incidents would be, that would up the ante in ISIL's propaganda war. This is when allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar will get cold feet.

Jack Sommers   |   September 23, 2014    8:03 AM ET

As the US Air Force began bombing Syria, Islamic State (IS) released a new propaganda video of British hostage John Cantlie claiming the West is being sucked into another Vietnam in the Middle East.

Mr Cantlie, who was abducted by the Islamist terror group, also know as ISIS, in 2012, is forced to defend them in the video and says American estimates of what it would take to beat them militarily are "laughably low." He also calls air strikes on IS "America's Gulf War Three".

It is the second video to feature the photo-journalist who has worked for the Times, Sunday Times and Sun. Last week, the first video emerged, in which he announces "a series of programmes" and claims he had "nothing to lose" in delivering the messages.

SEE ALSO:

He calls says American politicians calling IS "awful" or "vile" will not harm it.

"Such petty insults don't really do much harm to the most powerful jihadist movement seen in recent history," he says.

“The president once called George Bush’s Iraq conflict a ‘dumb war’ and couldn’t wait to distance America from it when he came into power.

"Now he’s being inextricably drawn back in. Not since Vietnam have we witnessed such a potential mess in the making.

"Current estimates of 15,000 troops needed to fight the Islamic State are laughably low. The State has more mujahideen than this.

“This is not some undisciplined outfit with a few Kalashnikovs.”

He says the "full might of the US war machine could not destroy Islamic State" and says it has grown in power since then.

john cantlie

John Cantlie as he appears in the video

Like the first, the second video also shows him with cropped hair and in an orange suit.

Though Mr Cantlie claimed in the first video that he was delivering propaganda voluntarily, few have believed this.

Other IS videos of the executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines all showed them making statements under duress, condemning their governments.

The latest video lasts six minutes and Mr Cantlie speaks in English with Arabic subtitles.

It always features high-end production values - images of public figures mentioned by Mr Cantlie are shown and he speaks with the fluent manner of a news anchor.

It appears to have been recorded before air strikes were launched.

Mr Cantlie introduces himself as "the British citizen abandoned by my government and a long-term prisoner of Islamic State".

What he says suggests the video was made before Tuesday's air strikes - saying Syrian president Assad has been "approached for permission to enter Syria".

He adds the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is decidly more pro-American than his predecessor, is keen for Western intervention to strengthen

"It's all quite a circus," Mr Cantlie says. "Airstrikes, the creation of last-minute puppet government, advisory teams on the ground, wooing previous enemies to join and trans-border incurions intoa country that's been in a state of civil war for three years.

"All while completely under-estimating the strength of fighting zeal of the opponent."

He signs off: "Join me again, for the next programme."

'It Never Happened' - US Intervention in Syria

Ian Sinclair   |   September 22, 2014   11:02 AM ET

Though it's rarely mentioned in polite company, Harold Pinter's 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech continues to resonate nearly ten years later.

"It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest", Pinter explained about the death and destruction caused by the United States across the globe. He went on: "The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them."

How can something not happen even while it was happening, you ask? Let me explain.

In June 2012 the New York Times, published a report headed 'CIA Said To Aid In Steering Arms To Syrian Opposition.' According to the report "a small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey" coordinating the delivery of arms to rebels in Syria, including "automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons." In March 2013 the New York Times published another report, titled 'Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From CIA'. This report noted the arms deliveries had "grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes". According to the New York Times the size of the arms transfers were such they "correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria's army from territory by the middle of last year."

So, to summarise, in mid-2012 the most influential newspaper in the world reported the US was helping to arm the rebels - a fact confirmed by subsequent stories in the New York Times itself aswell as numerous reports in other mainstream news outlets around the world.

Contrast this publicly available, easily accessed information with these summaries from the mainstream media of the ongoing US role in Syria:

The Telegraph, 21 April 2013: "While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both known to be
channeling arms to the rebels, there was no indication that the United States, Britain or other western allies might follow suit."

New York Times, 4 May 2013: "President [Obama] seems to be moving closer to providing
lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months
ago."

The Guardian, 8 May 2013: "The US, which has outlawed al-Nusra as a terrorist group, has
hesitated to arm the FSA [Free Syrian Army]..."

The Guardian, 23 July 2013: "Obama, who has been reluctant to engage too deeply in the
Syrian conflict, changed [his] position on arming opponents of Assad's regime last month".

New York Times, 9 September 2014: "Mr Obama has resisted military engagement in
Syria for more than three years, out of fear early on that arming the rebels who oppose Mr
Assad would fail to alter the balance in the civil war."

BBC Today Programme, 11 September 2014, Presenter Mishal Husein to US
Ambassador: "If you [the US] had helped the moderate Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian
Army, three years ago, even two years ago, we might well not be in the position that we are
now. President Obama's reluctance to intervene and to take action on Syria has contributed
to what we are seeing now." (1 hour 52 minutes in)

As Pinter said, "Even while it was happening it wasn't happening".

Why are all of these professional journalists - supposedly a profession made up of stroppy, questioning cynics - incapable of stating the most basic of facts about the US role in Syria?

The recent admission of former senior Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall may provide the answer. Describing Reuters's Iraq coverage as "pretty useless", the ex-Baghdad Bureau Chief explained "there is a certain discourse that becomes normalized, in which certain views are acceptable and others not." In this atmosphere, if you make obvious factual statements "you are often marginalised as some sort of looney figure", he notes. "It is through this process that the mainstream media basically becomes a tool of misinforming people, rather than informing people."

Another reason is alluded to in a September 2013 New York Times article that noted "Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria". The US and UK cooperation with Saudi Arabia is covert, the report explained, because "American and British intelligence and Arab Governments... do not want their support publicly known".

By refusing to inform their readers that the US has been arming the rebels in Syria since 2012 the mainstream liberal media have done exactly what best suits the US and UK governments. And by so closely following the US and UK Governments' preferred narrative, the media continues to minimise the US's responsibility for the on-going carnage in Syria and the rise of Islamic State.

The UK is OK thanks to GB

Richard Hytner   |   September 21, 2014   10:56 PM ET

'No' to independence from the UK meant 'yes' to dependence on GB. At the eleventh hour, Gordon Brown the former Prime Minister trumped Scotland's First Minister with authenticity, humility and outstanding oratory.

The Scottish Referendum has salutary lessons for leadership. Gordon Brown's convincing contribution to the 'No' campaign offers at least one: we should pause long and hard before exiting or exiling leaders we deem surplus to our new needs.

How ironic that those withering in their assessment of Gordon Brown's performance as Prime Minister were forced to rely heavily on his excellent and impassioned advocacy to see off the SNP. Was this the same Gordon Brown whose judgement was clouded by Tony Blair's broken promise over the timing of his turn at the top? Was this the same Gordon Brown who, by his own and others' leadership standards, so badly disappointed when he eventually moved from No. 11 to No. 10 Downing Street?

To become and remain Chancellor of the Exchequer for as long as he did, suggests that Brown was a competent and credible leader if, at times, a brooding and brutal one. His punishment for failing in the highest office was the humiliation of abandonment by the party he had served for a political lifetime. Brown warned of the 'Yes' camp's appeal and the 'No' camp's complacency, and offered to help his Labour colleagues. Ed Milliband, Brown's successor and protégé, preferred to distance himself from his former boss. Forget that the man had wisdom to impart and a point to prove. Discount his passion to win this particular fight - Brown's provenance gave him a deep connection to the cause. Nope, to the party's new leaders, Gordon was an embarrassment, the guy who just lost Labour the election. One hopes that this weekend Sarah Brown treated her husband to a side of schadenfreude with his scrambled eggs.

It is not only Milliband who should now be lavishing his erstwhile leader with lashings of gratitude. Her Majesty the Queen can relax, her realm not crudely down-sized; the royal corgis can roam Balmoral as landlords not trespassers; the Governor of the Bank of England, investors and chief executives can leave both loot and business locations untouched.

David Cameron marked his Referendum relief by sharing a papadom or two with his political pals. The plot they cooked up over a curry, and the speed of the announcement that England and Wales deserved the same devolved powers as those promised to Scotland, contained more spice than most had anticipated and significantly more than Ed Milliband could stomach.

Gratitude to Gordon should endure beyond his Referendum renaissance. His stellar performance has further exposed our nation's futile obsession with failure. It also supports the idea that a life in leadership transcends title and tenure in a single role. The thought that Gordon Brown's greatest political triumph may have been won not as Chancellor, nor as Prime Minister, but as an elder statesman without office, should offer lasting hope to leaders throughout all organisations.

Why stamp those who vacate the top dog's office with a past-their-sell-by date or insist on a 'former leader' label? Once a leader, always a leader. Why the race to conclusive condemnation of a leader's credentials on the basis of just one balls-up? When our leaders overstep the mark, succumb to hubris, stop listening and become excessively narcissistic - predictably, most do - in large part we have ourselves to blame. It suits us to invest just one individual with overarching accountability. It lets the rest of us off the hook. In today's winner-takes-all popular culture, in which we celebrate the X Factor, and dismiss those without it with a Lord Sugar-coated, 'You're Fired!', we search for the charismatic, heroic leaders who can rise above, and withstand, the onslaught of social media. Look at what America has done to arguably the most promising President since JFK. Evangelised as the answer to every prevailing problem, emasculated by Republican envy and intransigence, Barack Obama has journeyed from light of the world to lame duck in the blink of an eye.

For eleven years David Moyes was universally admired as the highly accomplished manager of Everton Football Club. It took just ten months in charge at Manchester United to conclude that he was the new pin up for the Peter Principle, whereby all of us, at some stage, reach our own level of incompetence. Of course, he had a hand in the dramatic diminution of his leadership reputation, but we too quickly overlook situational context and too easily ignore other factors that mask the truth. The implausibility of Moyes' success was inked into his employment contract.

David Moyes, Philip Clarke, former CEO at Tesco, François Hollande, the currently unpopular and, one day, former President of France, will all doubtless be judged to have failed at the peak of their powers. Can historians be tempted to cut these leaders some slack? Will they record that all were willing to have a go at the top job, knowing full well that success was never a shoo-in and that humiliation in the history books was, if not guaranteed, a realistic return for their efforts? Or might they yet pre-empt the historian's damning assessment, with an unexpected, welcome leadership intervention in a new role that cements a huge, enduring impact like that of Brown? Whether sought or imposed by circumstance, time spent away from the limelight can be liberating and productive for a leader, as Nicolas Sarozy hinted recently. It has given the former French President time to reflect on what is important, 'without the weight of power that twists human interaction.'

For showing that leadership can have a long shelf-life, even the defeated, deflated Alex Salmond may have Gordon Brown to thank. No longer burdened by the weight of power, and assuming he can soon stop sulking, the soon-to-be former First Minister has the opportunity to create a leadership legacy that stretches beyond bringing his country to the brink of independence. As for Gordon, he needs to go easy on the curtain calls and get back to the shadows. It appears that cameo not centre-stage roles suit him best.

Richard Hytner is Adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing, London Business School, and Deputy Chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide. His book, Consiglieri: Leading From The Shadows, was published on 4th June 2014 by Profile Books. www.consiglieribook.com

Follow Richard @RichardHytner

The Harsh Truth: ISIL Is the Product of Iran's Theocracy and Assad's Dictatorship

Lord Maginnis   |   September 18, 2014    2:12 PM ET

There is no doubt that the Islamic State (ISIL) - the nascent caliphate being set up by ultra-extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq - is a serious threat to all Western democracies and to the peace and stability of the world. All reasonable observers, of all whatever political hue, agree upon this fact. What is nonetheless a matter of dispute is how best to meet that threat. And far too many commentators are already committed to the notion that we can drive ISIL out of existence by simply bombing its captured territory and partnering with enemies or adversaries, whatever form they may take.

The tactics of ISIL are so shocking, the content of its rhetoric so unqualified that we can't help but focus upon them. But recognizing the threat does us little good if we fail to assess it in its proper context. We can supply massive quantities of arms to the Peshmerga and bomb ISIL positions to oblivion, but we equally must confront and grapple with the root cause of this threat.

In an August 16 commentary in the Telegraph, Prime Minister Cameron, for once, touched superficially and briefly upon the reality that the current conflict in the Middle East is not merely Sunni versus Shiite, but is instead a competition between ordinary Muslims and all manner of violent extremist groups, each of whom will seek to express its ambition through whatever Islamic tradition is under the pressure of the current power - e.g. Sunnis who were under the Diktat of the incompetent al-Maliki. However, the West seems intent on seeking to exploit the idea that, somehow, Iran may be a viable partner in undermining the extremism represented by ISIL.

What they fail to recognize is that the Iranian theocratic regime is the opposite side of the same extremist terrorist coin. Its commitment to radical Shiite Islam helped to create the conditions for the rise of ISIL, by supporting an exclusively Shiite government in Iraq and a repressive dictatorship in Syria.

Others argue that UK must engage with Iran and Assad in the global fight against ISIL similar to our co-operation with Stalin against Nazi Germany during the WWII. What the advocates of this policy fail to recognise is that, whereas Stalin's dictatorship was never born in some sort of reaction to Hitler's Nazi Germany, the religious dictatorship in Iran and its puppet allies in Syria and Iraq, have paved the way for the creation of vicious terrorist groups like ISIL.

The West - Obama and Cameron - have been naïve in their lack of sensitivity for regional allies in its fight against Middle Eastern extremism. Relatively moderate Muslim countries that are traditional Western allies have a positive role to play. Their contribution to the fight against the 'Islamic State' is unlikely to take the form of direct support for alternative extremist groups. Hence Iran, shrewdly playing both sides against the middle can be no more than another adversary in the West's fight against extremism.

Should the West be more diligent in listening too, rather than dictating to, countries like Turkey and Jordan, to name but two, it could influence on a broader geographical basis a policy of working to stabilise the Middle East in a way its love/hate/threat relationship with Iran can never achieve. Unfortunately, our policy of hasty rapprochement has alienated some potential allies who simply will not be reassured by our bomb Assad/ don't bomb Assad tactics has suggested. The Obama/Cameron meddling has shamed the West's credibility because of its inconsistency and logical contradictions. Is it not frightening that 11 years after our invasion of Iraq that country has become the very base for ISIL barbarism? To date, 3,000 members of the foremost Iranian resistance group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), remain stranded in Camp Liberty, Iraq, under constant threat from both Iranian agents who totally permeate the government in Baghdad, and the encroaching Islamic State extremists.

On 27 June, British MPs from both houses of Parliament, took part in a grand meeting of 100 000 Iranians in Paris, who were joined by hundreds of Parliamentarians, dignitaries and Former State Officials from the US, Europe and other continents, to support the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Mrs Maryam Rajavi.

Mrs Rajavi, representing the broader Iranian democratic opposition coalition, announced her vision for future Iran summarised in a Ten Point Plan that envisions a free, democratic, secular and nuclear-free Iran. The UK neglects democratically-driven PMOI/NCRI seemingly for not annoying Rouhani, of all people!

Our neglect for her movement, is part and parcel of a painfully short-sighted approach to the escalating conflicts in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic of Iran with its barbaric treatment of its own people surely cannot be a credible ally in the fight against ISIL. It is, with its dominating influence in Baghdad, a major contributor to current crisis - if embraced by the West it will be the nursery for World War III.

If an endless cycle of extremism is to be avoided, the West must immediately make a stand against extremism in all its forms. In order to do so, we must extract leverage from all possible relationships with moderate, secular, and democratic players in the Middle East, from the NCRI to the Iraqi Kurds to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Our objective cannot merely be to destroy the 2014 Islamic State, but to destroy the conditions that allowed ISIL to exploit a popular uprising in Mosul against the dreadful Nouri al-Maliki. NCRI/PMOI cautioned and alerted the West for 11 years but that fell on deaf ears until reality dawned.

For the West to acknowledge that there are at least two prominent enemies to freedom and stability in the Middle East would be a start. But by embracing one and opposing the other the West may disrupt the current flow of violence, but it will never halt the growth of extremism. As long as a Shiite theocracy remains in place in Iran, new Sunni extremists will always stand ready to compete with it for control over the soul of the Muslim world.

The First 'War on Terror' Was a Failure - Do We Really Need a Sequel?

Mehdi Hasan   |   September 18, 2014   12:09 PM ET

It's difficult to disagree with the verdict of Barack Obama. The Isis terrorists, the US president declared in a televised address on 10 September, "are unique in their brutality... They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists - Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff." (On 13 September, they also beheaded the brave British aid worker David Haines.)

Isis, in other words, is evil. Scum. The worst of the worst. Unique, to borrow Obama's phrase, in its brutality. Nevertheless, it isn't difficult to disagree with the solution proffered by the president and his new neocon pals. "We are at war [and] we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win," declaimed Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president. "What's the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?" asked the pundit William Kristol.

Forget for a moment the legality of bombing Iraq without congressional approval, or bombing Syria without UN approval. Put to one side, also, the morality of dropping bombs from 5,000 feet on towns in northern Iraq that are full of civilians.

The bigger issue is that military action might make us feel better about ourselves and it might even "degrade" Isis but it won't "destroy" it (to use Obama's preferred terminology). How will dropping bombs destroy the hate-filled ideology behind the terrorist group? How will air strikes prevent foreign fighters returning home to the west to carry out revenge attacks? How will killing innocent Iraqi Sunnis "in the crossfire" stop Isis from recruiting new and angry fighters from inside Iraq's Sunni communities? How will cruise missiles produce an inclusive government in Baghdad, one that heals the long-standing rifts between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis and encourages the Sunnis to turn their backs on Isis, as they did on al-Qaeda in 2006 and 2007? How will despatching drones help generate a national civic identity that makes Iraqis feel united as a single people, rather than part of a patchwork of warring tribes and sects?

If bombing "worked", Iraq would have morphed into a Scandinavia-style utopia long ago. Remember, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama is the fourth US president in a row to appear live on television in order to announce air strikes on Iraq.

Remember also that the US and its allies have been dropping ordnance on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, among other countries, since 2001. Yet, today, the Taliban is resurgent in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while al-Qaeda is opening new branches of its terror franchise in India; Libya is in chaos, with Islamist militias vying for control and the government in exile hiding out on a Greek car ferry; and US air strikes in Yemen, according to a former US embassy official in Sana'a, generate "roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [al-Qaeda] operative killed by drones".

"It's hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end," said Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in July. Why? "The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences... Coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy." Or as the economist and senior UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs recently tweeted, "US has a one-note foreign policy: bomb."

Once again, we are confronted with the myth of redemptive violence, the belief that the application of superior western air power is ultimately just, noble and necessary. Wanting vengeance for Foley, Sotloff and Haines, not to mention the thousands of unnamed Syrians and Iraqis slaughtered by Isis, is understandable. Vengeance, however, is no substitute for a viable strategy.

As Richard Barrett, the former MI6 head of counterterrorism, warned me in a recent interview, it's a mistake to see air strikes as a "tool that is going to solve the [Islamic State] problem... It's just reaching for a hammer because it is a hammer and it's to hand."

So what's to be done? First, just because there are no good options in Iraq doesn't mean we have to pick the worst option: a tried, tested and failed option. Yes, air strikes can keep Isis fighters away from Erbil but they cannot eradicate Isis.

Second, there is a range of political steps that must be taken - from guaranteeing Sunni participation in the new Iraqi government to cracking down on the oil sales worth $100million a month that fund the Isis reign of terror. Then there is the regional cold war that has helped fuel the hot wars in Iraq and Syria. Getting Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran to a negotiating table, Richard Barrett explained, would have "much more impact [on Iraq] than flying out and dropping bombs".

We can't talk to Isis but we can talk to Saudi Arabia (and, for that matter, to Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). And, yes, to Iran, too. The Iranians can put pressure on the dysfunctional Shia-led government in Baghdad; the Saudis can do the same with the disaffected Sunni tribes that have allied with Isis.

Instead, Obama, with David Cameron in support, prepares for a new, US-led, three-year military campaign, across two countries, against the thugs and gangsters of Isis, even though 13 years of the so-called war on terror - stretching from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq to Yemen, Libya to Somalia - have produced only more war and more terror. Do we really want a sequel?

Mehdi Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman, where this article is crossposted

''ARGHHHHHHHH! '' What Are You Getting So Annoyed About?

Paul Marshall   |   September 17, 2014    4:08 PM ET

The Ferrari Temper. The Fiat temper. The Ford Temper (enhanced by Cosworth of Northampton and beloved by boy racers everywhere and probably, Jeremy Clarkson). Not forgetting the Volvo Temper.

Before you ring your local dealership asking about any of the aforementioned models, they don't actually exist. The Swedes in particular are far too composed and self-controlled to ever produce a Temper. When you think about it though, isn't Temper a great name for a car? Beats the pants off Punto.

You can imagine the ads shot entirely on location in the bowels of hell; Ridley Scott behind the camera and the Devil himself behind the wheel. The name suggests a fiery and blistering performance. 0-62 in 1.4 seconds. God! that's slow, I reckon my temper goes from standstill to all out ballistic in a fraction of that . And I don't have the turbo version. Not yet. Maybe one day.

Still, there's a good reason motor manufacturers have never called and never will call one of their vehicles the Temper - any colour you like as long as it's red mist. This is because the very word also evokes anger. And as everyone knows, anger can quickly turn into rage and the last thing we need on the road, or anywhere else for that matter, is more rage.

Like a lot of people, my volatile temper - not tiny, but hardly dangerously large either - sometimes gets the better of me. I know it doesn't mean to. But occasionally (OK, slightly more than occasionally), it can't help itself. Like a recalcitrant child or a petulant pooch, it kind of flips. Definitely a case of my pan boileth over.

Why are some of us genetically hot wired to be hot-headed? Why do we suddenly fly off the handle without any provocation? What is it that makes an individual explode while others, outwardly, at least, remain an oasis of calm and tranquility?

I asked myself the very same questions the other day when I slammed down the phone- or, more correctly, the pieces of the phone that remained intact- after speaking to a supplier who'd once again fallen short in the service they afford us.

The answer is unlikely to come as any great psychiatric surprise. It's simply because we can get away with it. And the more we're allowed to get away with it, the more we play up to our irateness, without a single thought for the person or inanimate object about to be subjected to such extreme annoyance and abuse.

As with most of my work and quite a few of my personal conversations, this one started reasonably enough. Then it rapidly went downhill. To use a sporting analogy, it began as a genteel ladies bowls match, although never underestimate the steely determination of Cheltenham women over 65, and ended up as a grudge ice hockey match with me using the puck (sic) word a little too much.

Before I dialled the number, I knew in my mind what the eventual outcome would be. My brother, who I share an office with said: "Are you sure you should be calling them? Wouldn't it be better to just send an email?"

"Don't worry", I replied."I'll be fine. I won't lose it. Promise". A minute later I was inevitably ranting and screaming like a complete mad man. In my defence, I must state that I remained remarkably eloquent throughout and no expletive was mispronounced. Quite an achievement at 105 decibels with veins bulging on my forehead and flames coming out of my nostrils.

If any third world dictatorship is looking for a new leader, they could do a lot worse than to look in my direction. Those conference calls with Obama, Cameron and Putin would be interesting. "Don't they know it's the end of the world, it ended when I said *!&?@!%#*# off".

Unfortunately, the problem with having a temper is that you forever find yourself saying sorry for your behaviour. Especially galling when it's not your fault and you're not to blame - according to you.

What a sad little apology of a word 'sorry' is.

As a sentiment its overuse has almost reduced it to being practically worthless. It has no value any more. People are so sorry so often, no one really believes that they actually mean it. Despite this, the suckers I most recently said it to seemed pretty convinced. They were quite taken aback by my apparent contrition.

Far from being the hardest word to say, it is, on the contrary, the easiest. Every bit as throwaway as a tissue, 'sorry' is quickly becoming vocabulary's Kleenex.

However, it continues to be an effective way of hopefully diffusing a tricky situation. Of digging yourself out of a hole. Or of getting a person to shut up. It's hard for someone to remain livid with you when you've been so humble and apologetic.

Of course, if you don't want to constantly come over as the weaker party, the trick is to attempt to control your temper. To temper it, if you prefer.

Try soothing music, counting to 10 (I think I once managed 3) or signing up for a yoga class.

Yoga? Well, bollocks to that.

ISIS Is Trying To 'Suck The West' Into A New War

Mehdi Hasan   |   September 17, 2014   11:06 AM ET

ISIS is deliberately trying "to suck the west" into a new war in Iraq, one of the world's leading experts on Islamist terrorism has warned.

Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, former FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan, who spearheaded the bureau's hunt for Osama bin Laden in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, said he was "sceptical" of the US government plan to tackle ISIS. "Obama didn't provide a comprehensive strategy, he provided a plan which had series of tactics in it.. We're still missing a strategy to combat the roots of extremism. We've had tactics but no strategy to combat the ideology."

The American, who now runs the Soufan Group, which develops counterterrorism strategies for governments and corporate clients, said the recent beheadings of two US journalists and a UK aid worker were not aimed at deterring a Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria, but at provoking one.

"They are trying to suck the west into the war with them," he said. "Then they'll be not only the regional bad boy, but also the bad boy for the global jihadi movement. They can then claim they are in an international war - a modern day Crusade - against all the countries coming to fight them."

According to Soufan, ISIS is "fearful of Islamists within [their movement] turning against them.. They want to fight the British and the Americans.. to unify the extremists within and diminish any kind of meaningful threat [to them] within their support base. They are not fearful of secular or moderate people."

ali soufan

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan spearheaded the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the run-up to 9/11

Soufan led the FBI's investigation into Al Qaeda's bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and has interrogated, among others, Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard Abu Jandal. He told HuffPost UK that ISIS fighters would "eventually" target Western countries. "That's why they have been working hard to recruit people from the west. They were able to recruit more people from the West than Al Qaeda ever dreamed of."

Soufan made clear that he supports targeted air strikes against ISIS positions, by the United States and it allies, but only as part of a wider strategy to tackle the root causes of violent extremism in the Muslim-majority world.

"The military campaign is only a tool, it's not a strategy. The solution is not only by drones. It's not only by airstrikes. The solution is a regional solution that [is about] defeating the ideology that promotes extremist groups like ISIS, defeating the incubating factors that promote extremism, and [making] countries in the region.. understand they cannot use extremism in their proxy wars against one other."

Soufan stressed, particularly, the need to "deal with the regional environment" in which extremist groups have been allowed to grow and mutate. "As long as you have a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, you have a lot of problems which allows ISIS and others to exist. You need a regional solution for a regional problem."

Military action, though, is unavoidable as "ISIS is not going to be defeated by words". However, the former FBI agent is "against putting people from the West on the ground. Because this fight is about the Muslim world, this is about the soul of Islam. The roots are not solely based in the US or the West, they're mainly based in the Muslim world."

He said the new anti-ISIS coalition that the Obama administration is trying to build in the Middle East may not be viable, given the differing agendas of the countries involve. "Unfortunately, what we see with all these nations allegedly signed up for this coalition [is that] each one of these countries - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, etc - seems to be trying to co-opt the fight against ISIS to promote its own interests."

Soufan also highlighted the role of Gulf members of the coalition in fanning the ideological flames of what he calls "Bin Ladenism" and said some Sunni-led autocracies across the region were now "fearful of ISIS" only "because" ISIS became a tiger that they could not ride any more".

The former FBI agent, however, dismissed those in the West calling for an anti-ISIS alliance which also includes the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. "I don't think we should be working with Assad," he told HuffPost UK. "In the West, we think the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the Middle East, the enemy of enemy can also be an enemy."

Soufan said there was an urgent need to "establish a strategy to counter the [Al Qaeda and ISIS] narrative globally. Talking about it is one thing. But we need to focus on the ideology."

  |   September 16, 2014    4:06 PM ET

America's top military leader told Congress on Tuesday that if President Barack Obama's expanded military campaign to destroy Islamic extremists fails, he would recommend that the United States consider deploying American ground forces to Iraq.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel that the goal for American advisers is to help Iraqi forces with planning, logistics and coordinating military efforts by coalition partners to take out members of the Islamic State group.

"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president," Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committees, using an alternative name for the group.

Pressed during questioning, Dempsey said he "would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces."

Obama has maintained that American forces will not have a combat mission in Iraq.

Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faced multiple questions from lawmakers in the first high-stakes hearing examining Obama's expanded military campaign to counter the relentless terrorist threat from Middle East extremists.

Dempsey said Americans in Iraq are serving in a combat advisory role but not participating in direct combat. However, if the Iraqi forces took on a complex mission to retake Mosul, the general said he might want U.S. troops to accompany the Iraqi troops or provide close combat advice.

The apparent contradiction of combat-trained forces not participating directly in combat was captured in one exchange between Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Dempsey.

"Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will U.S. forces be prepared to provide search and rescue mission if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?" Inhofe asked.

"Yes and yes," Dempsey said.

The U.S. military conducted strikes near Baghdad against the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Obama is seeking congressional support to train and equip vetted Syrian moderates fighting both the Islamic militants and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

congress

Members of the anti-war activist group CodePink interrupt a Senate Armed Services Committee

Dempsey said the United States is prepared to strike Islamic targets in Syria.

"This will not look like 'shock and awe' because that is not how ISIL is organized. But it will be persistent and sustainable," Dempsey said, referring to the air bombardment at the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Several lawmakers have their doubts about the United States being pulled into a larger war, with increasing numbers of American troops. The president has already dispatched more than 1,000 Americans three years after combat forces left Iraq.

Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed reservations about the ability to identify moderates in a country awash with rebel formations and shifting alliances. The Islamic State grew out of the al-Qaida movement, but the two are now fighting. In some instances, the moderate Free Syrian Army has teamed with al-Qaida's local franchise, the Nusra Front.

Hagel said the U.S. will monitor them closely to ensure that weapons don't fall into the wrong hands.

"There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL — and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria," the defense secretary said.

Anti-war protesters filled the front rows at the hearing, chanting "no more war" at the start of the session and repeatedly interrupting the testimony. The protesters were escorted from the room.

Hagel said the involvement will not be "an easy or brief effort. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaida."

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met in the Oval Office with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who is coordinating international efforts to combat the Islamic State militants. Brett McGurk, a top Iraq adviser at the State Department, also took part in the meeting.

Racing to finish its work and leave Washington for midterm campaigning, House Republicans finalized legislation to authorize the mission to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

The authorization under consideration will be included as an amendment to a spending bill Congress must pass to keep the government open until mid-December. That would give lawmakers the opportunity to hold a separate debate and vote on the matter — something members of both parties want. Votes could come as early as Wednesday.

Bowing to congressional fears that any vote is tantamount to a war vote, the legislation includes a provision stating that "nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of U.S. armed forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances."

The provision reflects a congressional divide between hawks seeking tougher action than that proposed by Obama and lawmakers weary from more than a decade of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The measure compels the Pentagon to present Congress with a plan 15 days before any training begins and requires ongoing updates every 90 days.

The U.S. plan is to develop moderate Syrian forces at Saudi Arabian training sites before helping them return to the battlefield. It's unclear how long they would need to be trained to be battle-ready or how the U.S. could ensure their attention remained on fighting extremists and not just the Syrian government.

____

AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

SEE ALSO:

Cooking for President Obama Was Food for Thought

Chef Damian Trejo   |   September 16, 2014    2:27 PM ET

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Food is the world's most powerful leveller... and nothing cements that fact better than being asked to cook for President Barack Obama himself.

Nosh crosses boundaries of language, age, class and race and enlightens us about each of these elements.

Food has become a social glue and the TV is dominated by programmes about it. Smells and tastes have the extraordinary power to evoke visceral memories, like no other trigger.

Our existence revolves entirely around meals and our lives depend on it. It's a central ingredient for traditions like Christmas and Thanksgiving or seminal life moments, from wedding receptions and birthday cakes to religious feasts like Yom Kippur or Eid.

Food choices are the foundation of our health and teach us about different cultures, lifestyles, history and individuals.

Naturally, as Head Chef of London's Manhattan Grill, I'm passionate about food and am fascinatined by other people's relationships with it, because it's one subject that excites everybody, whether it's a fish they caught and cooked themselves, or a family recipe, proudly handed down like a treasured heirloom.

I've cooked for a galaxy of stars, from the Dalai Lama to the president, and people are always eager to find out what and how they ate. The media is increasingly saturated with photographs of celebrities eating and details about their diets.

And that's because food humanises stars and brings them down from the clouds, proving they're just like us, because it's a normal and integral part of everyday life that we all identify with.

However, as I discovered with President Obama, he may eat like the rest of us, but the planning behind each meal is an enormous task, a million miles away from the conventional sarnie cafe-run or casual restaurant nibble.

I was put on standby for an extended period, to cater for the rumblings of Obama's presidential tummy, when I cooked for him during his hotel stay in Warsaw.

Celebrities are often the only clients who see restaurants' kitchens, since they're frequently shepherded past the saucepans and ladles to avoid public areas. And this was the case with the President, who was secretly ushered from his limo in the loading bay, and into a service lift to my kitchen, before being sneaked into his room, where the floor was temporarily shut for the occasion.

Obviously, security needs to be impossibly high, when food and the world's most powerful man are concerned. There are even rumours of the White House's Chef Andrew being Obama's official food taster at public dinners, although I didn't see evidence of this when cooking for him.

And while the rest of us fill meal times with whatever culinary delights tickle our fancies at that moment, the president must decide far in advance, whether he wants a lasagne the following Monday or not. So we were given detailed instructions about what to prepare, way ahead of his visit.

And unlike many celebs, everything he chose was from our menu, with no special requirements, off-menu demands or requests that all brown M&Ms were removed from his candy bowl.

The president headed to our gym, unnannounced, to the eye-popping surprise of various residents sweating over the Cross Trainers, because he refused to have it shut down for his session.

Meanwhile, I had around 15 former Navy Seals from White House security, probing the kitchen and closely watching, as I prepared his amusingly innocuous meal of Free Range eggs, ham and chips. He's definitely a fan of a cheeky chip and snacked on them during his stay, drowned in my homemade salsa.

Of all the celebrities, people are most transfixed by Obama's meals, and that's no surprise: If you are what you eat, what must you chow down on to be 44th president of the United States?

Food is a political marketing tool he frequently uses, to endear himself even more with the world.

Who can forget the time he chest-bumped a man serving him as he collected an enormous take-away order, after the fast food worker shouted "equal rights for gay people?" Or the time he famously praised his retiring White House pastry chef Bill Yosses -- "The Crustmaster" -- for his delicious pies, saying: "I don't know what he does -- whether he puts crack in them, or what," adding "my cholesterol shot up and I thought, it's the pie! So we had to establish a really firm rule about no pie during the week."

My extraordinary experience with Obama gave me a fascinating insight into the power of food, to unite and equalise us all... whether you're a president with ham on the end of a fork which has been scrutinised by 15 guards, or a mum spooning up spuds and Yorkshire Puds on a Sunday.

And that's a truly tasty thought to digest.