Tuesday 11 April 2006

DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the US at the Time of 9/11 and

Christopher Meyer

When Christopher Meyer’s surprisingly dull memoir finally meanders its way around to the first of only two chapters devoted solely to the Iraq War, he writes: ‘I was a firm supporter of calling Saddam Hussein to account, if necessary by war. I have not changed my mind.’ (p. 226) He endorses the dangerous concept of pre-emptive war, unapologetically agreeing with the Iraq Survey Group report (which failed to find any WMD in Iraq): ‘Saddam’s threat was his ambition and intent’ (p. 228). It is not immediately obvious, then, what is so ‘controversial’ about this hawkish account of the build-up to war, now available in paperback with this expanded title. Nor is it obvious what the book can offer opponents of that war, nor what provoked such an outcry from the British government when DC Confidential was serialised in the Guardian. However, because Meyer’s criticism focuses on the execution of pre-emptive war rather than the policy itself, his account gives away information that scantily matches his own flawed analysis and damages the British government.

Meyer helpfully confirms that on 20 September 2001, Bush discussed with his cabinet the possibility of attacking Iraq simultaneously with Afghanistan. Iraq was temporarily deferred, but in the ‘Hour of the Hawks’, the neo-cons’ Middle Eastern vision burst irrevocably from the ‘strategic closet’ (p. 231). By early 2002, ‘Bush was determined to implement’ and ‘Blair had already taken the decision to support regime change’ (p. 241); in April, Blair gave an under-reported speech in Texas enunciating a ‘doctrine of pre-emption’ and conflating Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein (p. 247). To beef up his own credibility, Meyer ‘emphasised the Prime Minister’s commitment to regime change’ (p. 242), trading the assurance that ‘whatever Bush wanted to do, Blair wanted to be with him’ for crumbs of information from White House sources (p. 239). Far from being Bush’s ‘poodle’, Blair was a ‘true believer’ in regime change even earlier than Bush (p. 284). Meyer claims that no ‘irrevocable decision’ to go to war was taken until the January 2003 State of the Union address locked the US into this course (p. 259), but this contradicts the analyses of his own intelligence and military staff (p. 282), and even if no ‘irrevocable’ operational decision had been taken, Meyer’s account (apparently unwittingly) makes it clear that plans to invade Iraq and topple its government were being hatched as early as 2001. This lends further credence to critical accounts like that of former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill.

Meyer’s conclusions are also rubbished by the now-infamous Downing Street Memo of July 2002 in which the British Secret Service chief reported that, in Washington, intelligence was being ‘fixed’ around the case for war. Meyer claims: ‘I do not know what he meant by this’ (p. 283). This is hard to reconcile with his prescription, having readily accepted the case for war, that ‘what was needed was a clever plan which convinced people that there was a legal basis for toppling Saddam’ (p. 243), that Britain ‘needed UN cover’ (p. 250), and his argument that a later invasion date would have allowed the British dossiers on Iraq to have been better-crafted, replacing a ‘phoney threat of imminent attack’ with an ‘eloquent’ appeal for pre-emption (pp. 280-1). His claim that US hawks genuinely believed in Iraqi WMDs and links to Al Qaeda are also undermined by his own observations that figures like Paul Wolfowitz were dismissing CIA reports denying the existence of Saddam-Al Qaeda links with the (incredibly ironic) remark: ‘they only see what they want to see’ (p. 229). Ultimately, ‘the timetables for war and the inspections programme could not be made to synchronise’ (p. 261), so the former won out.

Sloppy reasoning and an unthinking acceptance of the dangerous notion of pre-emptive war permeate a book riddled with contradictions that produces little respect for a man who was overwhelmed by the ‘intellectual élan and polemical skill’ of the neo-con hawks (p. 236). Indeed, Meyer’s recollections suggest he was altogether too close to the Bush administration. Prior to the 2000 elections, he and his staff arduously courted Bush’s circle, discussing foreign policy with them before the outcome had even been settled, claiming there were ‘no obvious areas of disagreement’ despite looming conflict over National Missile Defence (pp. 164-6). No evidence of any close collaboration with Gore’s camp is presented. When Bush was appointed president by the Supreme Court, Meyer rebuked one disappointed Downing Street aide: ‘Get over it. Bush is President and that’s that’ (p. 174). Meyer and his wife liked Al Gonzalez (Bush’s Attorney-General who has argued in favour of torture) ‘from the first hand-shake’ (p. 151), claim close friendship with hawks like Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and lobbied for Ken Lay in Britain (p. 146). Despite gratuitous criticism of others’ dress sense - like Blair’s jeans or his ‘ball-crushingly tight corduroys’, or Senators’ groin-revealing kilts (pp. 268, 176, 126) - Meyer even had cowboy boots made by Karl Rove’s personal boot-maker (p. 264). The bulk of the book is constituted by name-dropping anecdotes, reinforced by three series of full-colour photographs depicting him alongside people like Margaret Thatcher and Condoleezza Rice, and an index that has no entry for ‘pre-emption’ but five for Henry Kissinger.

The character that emerges from these ill-judged pages is a dubious one at best. His public school brand of anti-intellectualism, betrayed most starkly in his unquestioning acceptance of pre-emption, is his worst failing. Given one of the stated aims of the book is to defend ‘the enduring relevance of diplomacy’ and a ‘clear-eyed vision of the national interest’ (p. x), his failure to consider pre-emption’s impact on international law is telling. But then, this is a man whose recollection of the Falklands War runs: ‘Sheffield sunk, oh no! Belgrano sunk, great! It was no time for nuance. It was my country right or wrong. Who gave a damn for the Belgrano’s change of course? We were at war, for God’s sake’ (p. 224), describing hosting the architect of this war crime, Margaret Thatcher, as a ‘great honour’ (p. 73). The strength of international law and institutions is surely vital to the interests of any status quo power like Britain, something subconsciously acknowledged just a few pages later when Meyer claims pre-emptive war was needed to stop the UN going the way of the League of Nations (p. 228).

Meyer and his wife, Catherine, apparently milked their status for all it was worth, frequenting endless parties, including a dinner with a top table so high that after-dinner supplicants’ heads were barely visible above them - ‘I loved the whole thing’, Meyer declares (p. 231). More seriously, Catherine, whose German ex-husband had sadly abducted her children and was sheltered by an arcane German legal system, exploited her position as the British ambassador’s wife to convince the US Congress and Government to support the charity fighting her and others’ cases, while Meyer engaged in influence-trading on her behalf in a deal he himself describes as being ‘as ethical as a £7 note’ (pp. 121-3). Meyer’s early career is no better: he was trained in the 1960s as a Soviet specialist, but his recollections of four postings to Moscow are limited to his pursuit of a ‘blonde stunner’ named Svetlana (p. 48), whilst he defied Foreign Office instructions as ambassador to Germany by helping his wife-to-be in order to expand his opportunities to letch at her legs (reported in his stolid civil-service-speak thusly: ‘she sensed my eyes boring into her calves like red-hot pokers. I was very gratified by what I saw’ - p. 41). Meyer deserves some sympathy - especially when the Foreign Office refused to pay for treatment for his worsening heart condition, forced him to defer his planned retirement then apparently briefed against him when he did finally retire (p. 274) - but not much. It is hard to respect a man who rejected an ambassadorial post in Eastern Europe in the dramatic year of 1989 in favour of a junior posting in Washington (p. 7) to schmooze with Rupert Murdoch and his anti-European hacks (p. 172) and crack anti-French jokes to curry favour with nationalistic Americans (p. 145). Meyer compares unfavourably with Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to Tashkent, who used his position to highlight grotesque human rights abuses in Uzbekistan (and was then fired and persecuted for it).

If Bush and Blair decided to go to war in 2001 or 2002, Meyer rightly points out, ‘each can be justifiably charged with duplicity on a grand scale’ (p. 238). He judges them innocent of this ‘central accusation’ (p. 283). The facts collected in his book speak to the contrary, a point Meyer misses due to his unwarranted faith in the legitimacy of the doctrine of pre-emptive war. The government, presumably, did not miss it: this, better than Meyer’s indiscreet remarks about New Labour’s political ‘pygmies’ (p. 77) and Prescott’s mangled references to the ‘Balklands’ and ‘Kovosa’ (p. 79), explains the outrage that greeted DC Confidential’s serialisation. Meyer argues, ‘the ace up our sleeve was that America did not want to go it alone’ (p. 282), so his book also documents the failure of Britain’s ‘yes, but’ diplomacy to extract a single concession from Washington in return for British support beyond a single half-hearted, failed mission to Palestine (followed by a hardening of America’s pro-Israeli stance) and UN Resolution 1441, which failed to provide the UK with legal ‘cover’ and was immediately followed by American pressure on Hans Blix to produce the goods to legitimise a US invasion (p. 258). The UN route was thus neglected and post-war planning virtually ignored as Washington’s hawks were taken in by Ahmed Chalibi’s assurances that the invasion would be a walkover. Meyer expressed ‘anxiety’ at Britain’s failure to use its leverage, but admits not speaking up at key junctures to push Washington to be more helpful (p. 262). Ultimately, despite his claim that ‘civil servants like me had to be politically neutral’ (p. 10), Meyer was deeply implicated in the failure of British diplomacy and in the preparation of an illegal war. Perhaps he ought to have recalled his own admonishment: ‘there is no policy without politics, and no politics without bias and distortion’ (p. 20).

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