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We Watched NATO Try to Solve the Problems with Russia and ISIS on a Welsh Golf Course

The grim specter of the Islamic State loomed heavily over the NATO summit. The jihadist group dictated the agenda of the event being held at the five-star resort in Newport and nearby Cardiff Castle.
September 8, 2014, 8:40am

There's a shadow hanging over the sun-kissed greens at the Celtic Manor's golf course. The grim specter of the Islamic State looms heavily over the NATO summit. The jihadist group has, to a large extent, dictated the agenda of the event being held at the five-star resort in Newport and nearby Cardiff Castle.

I wonder if the organizers could have guessed, when they announced the location of the 26th annual summit, that three young men from South Wales would fly to Syria to wage jihad. In the months before the summit, would-be extremists Aseel Muthana, Nasser Muthana, and Reyaad Khan were pictured enjoying a barbecue at a beautiful spot just miles from where David Cameron and Barack Obama would later tuck into a stately banquet.

Fears that jihadist barbecues could become a regular occurrence around the summit led police to put in place a massive security operation, which has seen Cardiff city center transformed into something that looks more like Berlin in 1961 or Belfast in 1972. A show of strength with steel fencing, armed police, and a clear message: "Don't fuck with us." The whole summit could be seen as making the very same statement.

There was a giant tank parked on the fairway right next to the 18th hole. The roar of jets and helicopter rotary blades passed constantly overhead. A fleet of soldiers drove by in golf carts. In fact there were soldiers at every turn, some of whom looked pretty on edge.

Outside the media center, police were showing off their attack dogs. Bomb-disposal experts displayed the latest anti-IED technology, and army medics simulated battlefield surgery on a "hyper realistic dummy." A team of surgeons battled to stem the flow of fake blood from the prosthetic limbs. "It's very realistic," one of them assured me.

I headed inside the media center, which was slowly filling with the 1,500 reporters in attendance.

On the TVs inside, the headlines were dominated by the murder of Steven Sotloff—a man who lost his life trying to find light in the darkness. The room was already packed with producers, presenters, and other miscellaneous media types. I imagine that for a lot of us this was the closest we will ever come to a war zone.

Everyone seemed to be waiting for pool cards—passes that allow you to attend a string of carefully orchestrated media opportunities. No one knew when they would be given out and who was going to get one. It appeared that one of the key security tactics was to keep everyone in a state of confusion until the last possible moment. The whole pool system is basically engineered to keep you away from anything you may actually want to report on.

One of the hundreds of volunteers told me, "It's all for security—it has to be done in this very bureaucratic way, and there is absolutely no free movement. Some people think they can get around it, but that's no going to cut much ice with a guy wielding a machine gun. That's why there are so many volunteers. Some of us are very busy; for them these two days are a living nightmare. Others, like myself, are trying to set the world coffee-drinking record."

I walked to the Lodge, the luxurious clubhouse that overlooked the sprawling course with its freshly raked sand bunkers and perfectly trimmed putting greens. BBC News' political editor, Nick Robinson, and his team were stationed here. His producer was trying to secure him exclusive access to the defense ministers' dinner at Cardiff Castle.

Robinson was admiring the collection of armored vehicles parked on the course. "It's like a grown-up [mini] golf," he said. His producer seemed less impressed. She had already been hit by a flying golf ball while looking for places to film.

Later in the evening, Obama touched down in his Marine One helicopter. It was the second time the American president has managed to find himself on a golf course in the immediate aftermath of an Islamic State decapitation video. Following the death of James Foley, he was photographed teeing off just after a press conference condemning the killing. This time around I doubt he found time for a putt.

As the world leaders arrived for a day of talks, they were all welcomed by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones and Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb. Jones looked suitably star-struck when he met Obama. As the pair shook hands his wide eyes screamed, "Never washing this hand again!" Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, which has been trying to join NATO to Russia's chagrin, was a special guest. The Chocolate King looked like a melted Billy Fury with a graying quiff and anxious jowls. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan were also in attendance, attending talks about how to combat IS.

Once the world leaders had arrived it was time for them to pose, like children on their first day of school, for a “family photograph.” The family photograph was one of the more cuddly euphemisms deployed—letting everyone know who was “in” and, perhaps more important, which nations didn't qualify to be part of the world’s elite club.

On the morning the NATO conference opened, David Cameron was heard on Radio 4 describing Bashar al Assad's Syria as an illegal government against which military action would be morally justified. His opening address teed up further pariahs. "We meet here at a solemn moment for our alliance and for the security of our nations," he said. "We meet at a crucial moment in the history of our alliance, and we face new dangers and evolving threats, and it's absolutely clear that NATO is as vital to our future as it has been to our past. Russian troops are illegally in Ukraine. The extremist Islamist threat has risen anew in Iraq and Syria. NATO is the anchor of our security, and in the next two days we must reinvigorate and reform this alliance to tackle new threats and ensure it continues to foster stability around the world."

As the first day of the summit drew to a close the press tent was full of dark mutterings of “Bomb Syria and bomb Iraq."

Meanwhile, the members of NATO were patting themselves on the back over the job they've done in Afghanistan and have just announced the launch of a new website about how great Afghanistan is now, called Return to Hope, which sounds like a bad Stars Wars sequel. Parts of it are equally as fictitious.

It seems interventionism is back in fashion and NATO's “success” in Afghanistan could be a model for the whole region. Maybe Islamic State's decapitating, Yazidi-slaughtering, female-genital-mutilating horde represents such a fundamental threat to our way of life that the only reasonable response is extreme force. Then again, why did NATO welcome representatives from Saudi Arabia, which has done much to promote Islamic extremism and carries out public beheadings, in May to discuss “outreach” in the Middle East?

But as Operation Ismay, the 9,000-strong police presence in Newport and Cardiff demonstrated, IS is also a threat from within—with British-born Muslims leaving our shores to fight to form a caliphate and then returning with combat experience and even more zeal than before. I guess there are some problems you can't just bomb away.