The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as British ambassador to Washington, because of his leaked messages to London criticising President Trump, is highly revealing about the real state of British knowledge of what is going on in the US.
Supporters of the former ambassador portray him as a skilled and experienced foreign office official who was “only doing his job” until brought low by the machinations of the Brexiteers and the treachery of Boris Johnson. His detractors view him, on the contrary, as an old-style representative of a europhile British foreign policy establishment which is out of place in the age of Trump.
Most striking in the copious excerpts from Darroch’s cables to the home government between 2017 and the present day – published by the Mail on Sunday – is that they do not contain a single original fact or opinion. They are a relentless repetition of the shallowest Washington conventional wisdom about the intentions of the Trump administration.
“This is a divided administration,” Darroch tells his readers and says that there are angry disputes within the White House which he compares to a knife fight. He suspects that Trump could be indebted to “dodgy Russians” and fears that his economic policies could wreck the world trading system. Possibly the president could “crash and burn” because he is “mired in scandal”, though politicians in London should “not write him off”.
Our man in Washington since 2016 believes that Trump has the ability to shrug off scandals and emerge from the flames, battered but intact, “like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scene in the Terminator”.
A senior diplomat from the British embassy goes to a Trump rally and finds the crowd to be almost exclusively white. He describes the enthusiastic atmosphere as being similar to that of home fans at a sporting event and the faithful attending a religious meeting. The ambassador suspects that Trump’s campaign strategy in the presidential election will be to “go with what he knows best” and appeal to his core supporters. Cunning fellow!
Darroch demonstrates a firm grip on the obvious, citing his own sources as confirming information which was already the lead item on every news channel and newspaper front page across America. On occasion, even these sources fail, as they do when Trump is deciding whether or not to launch retaliatory airstrikes on Iran after the Iranians shoot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
In an excerpt from a cable written at 12.39am UK time on 22 June, Darroch detects disarray in Washington: “Even our best contacts were unwilling to take our calls.”
Isabel Oakeshott, who obtained and published the cables, does her best to make Darroch’s words sound interesting and original by claiming “astonishingly” that the ambassador was dubious about Trump’s statement that he changed his mind on US airstrikes because of his concern over Iranian casualties. Similar scepticism had earlier been expressed by every new channel in the country.
Looking through the excerpts from Darroch’s cables, I searched for something that was not common knowledge and found nothing. Could Oakeshott, known to be sympathetic to Brexit, have deliberately excluded anything really new from her quotes? This is unlikely because journalists generally boost the explosive nature of the “bombshell comments” in their scoops.
It is equally unlikely also that she would deliberately fillet Darroch’s prose style and leave in only the cliches and tired phrases. Assuming that her excerpts are representative of the rest of his cables, it becomes clear that Britain’s most senior man in Washington knew so little about developments in the White House that he might as well have stayed in London, or, for that matter, the Outer Hebrides.
Does this matter? Yes it does, because it highlights the real weakness of Britain at the very moment that a British warship is in the Gulf – with another one on the way – confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guard gunboats, in a conflict which is driven by the US, and whose direction we cannot predict or even influence.
Is Britain kowtowing to the US? You bet she is, but this is scarcely fresh news. In the 40 years that I have been writing about British foreign policy in the Middle East, the priority of British governments has invariably been to find out what the Americans want, do the same thing as them as cheaply as possible and demonstrate what a valuable and irreplaceable ally we are.
This has been the ongoing British approach since 1940 with a brief wobble at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. The British drew the conclusion from Suez that they must be more closely allied to the US, while the French decided that, on the contrary, they needed to cooperate more closely with other continental states in Europe.
There is nothing foolish about a policy of Britain piggy-backing on American power though the strategy was accompanied by a great deal of self-deception. Brexit or no Brexit, it is not likely to change much. Tony Blair is unfairly blamed by many for cravenly joining the US in invading Iraq in 2003, but another prime minister – Labour or Conservative – would have done exactly the same thing.
The British acted in lock-step with the Americans and appeared to have little other purpose in being in Iraq. As soon as the bulk of US forces left, the British did the same thing and promptly lost interest in the place. The same was true when Isis captured Mosul and advanced on Baghdad in 2014. A House of Commons Defence Committee report the following year that as Isis was preparing to capture Mosul “the political section of the British Embassy in Baghdad consisted of three relatively junior, although extremely able, employees on short term deployment.” When Isis attacked the Kurds in northern Iraq the same year, the Germans poured in thousands of machine guns, assault rifles and anti-tank weapons while we managed to send just 40 heavy machine guns.
What Brexiteers – as well as many anti-Brexiteers – fail to understand is the degree to which Britain’s real political and commercial power has declined. There are lamentations about the decline of the foreign office and the defence forces, but it is too late to do much about this. It was, after all, the slogan of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that the government apparatus was the problem, not the solution. This was always nonsense, but one result has been the ebbing effectiveness of the British state in general of which the weakening of the diplomatic and armed forces are only one aspect.
The vacuous cables and humiliating departure of Darroch, and Britain’s reliance on the US in any confrontation with Iran, tell the same story. Both expose in different ways just how isolated and ill-informed about the world Britain has become. So long as it stuck to old routines and alliances, this was not as obvious as it is now becoming. The only option will be to stick even closer to Trump’s America, but we have no means of influencing or even knowing about Trump’s chaotic course, as our former ambassador has discovered to his cost.