Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Ambassador's Tale

The UK ambassador to the United States at the time was witnessing today. He is a very different type from the Foreign Office witnesses of the last two days. Think school master breezily imparting complex knowledge at an apparently low level while interacting with his class by using names, lots of you and singling out of interlocutor, lots of attribution of intelligent thoughts to listeners, lots of apologies for not making himself clear or being misleading as he dragged perception back onto the narrative line every time it wandered. A positively Le Carre character, writhing in his chair, gesturing freely, bit of light swearing, and man to maniness - man to boyiness actually, honesty in telling. Patronising of this kind is hard to deal with and an effective tool for ranking people - by interacting with them with quite small shifts of behaviour within the over all histrionic manner. Ranking questions too, so that off message or difficult queries can be dealt with in a let's get this basic boring information straight and the get back to the exciting things there are to discuss.

What there was to discuss was the relationsip between the Blair UK and Bush US administrations. More accurately the relationship between Blair and his aides and the various factions of the Bush administration. Large sections both of UK policy and of the UK government who might reasonably be thought to play a role in this were simply excluded. The ambassador seemed to have been reporting to Downing Street, not to the Foreign Secretary; only Blair had access to Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice. Others had access sometimes to some of them (not Bush, of course) but no-one else to all of them (including through any other channels or to underlings). Asked more than once about communicating shifts in various policies (for instance, whether a full record of the abandonment of any interest in strengthening sanctions and putting in weapons inspectors again - official UK policy - by the US administration had been given by him to London) our man in Washington replied certainly but he'd been unable to find the advice in the archives. The archives failed repeatedly to yield documents from the ambassador over the period under consideration but this was touched on so airily, so lightly by the now ex-ambassador it might well have been of little importance. It was a relief that the chairman returned some weight to the proceedings by announcing at the end of the session that the documents would be looked for again and presented with the other Inquiry documentation. Nul points at the very best for preparation Mr Ambassador, and a serious query over the state of the archives.

So while Downing Street conducted war preparation policy with Bush and parts of the Bush administration, the rest, including Colin Powell and the the Foreign Office, pressed on with what might now be seen as the propaganda policy for international and UK parliamentary and public consumption. The policy of renewing and strengthening United Nations sanctions and resolutions. The alleged flouting of these last, and the alleged intention on Saddam's part of flouting them further was conflated with the new(ish) concepts of rogue states and state-sponsored mass victim terrorism+WMD = condoning pre-emptive action; and further conflated with human rights, internationally guaranteed, permitting armed intervention in sovereign states (Kosovo and the Balkans). No wonder that the majority of the Security Council being against any armed attack upon Iraq was ignored, the whole apparatus of international relations, including the UN, was being ignored, except for cover. The decision had been taken by the weight of military preparation and its exigencies, under the spurious new international politics, and by an inner US administration unconcerned by formal, accepted international constraints and organisations for which they felt a visceral disgust as attempts to constrain US actions. And if Tony felt it was politically impossible in England to get the attack on Iraq without UN then the US would play the UN charade to help but - hey - no hard feelings if Tony couldn't join in (as the President said to the Prime Minister, according to the ambassador, but who knows as so much of the documentation seems not to be to hand in the archives). The military imperatives were made more pressing too by a much more important ally than the UK.

Turkey made shifting US troops and weaponry from Germany impossible by refusing transit. The only voice speaking for major European states (Russia spoke as a weak but still world-power) in the Security Council was France; it would be interesting to hear how relations with Germany were getting along and by whom they were conducted. And who spoke to Turkey?

The witness taught on: Blair's condemnation of Saddam's "defiance" in a 1998 speech and the need to deal with him by the use of armed force was read out by the ambassador to the Inquiry. The policy, about which Blair had later seen the need 'to be discreet in public' was longstanding and carried over from the Clinton Administration. The thought occurred to this listener that this pattern of continuity of policy regardless of administration is accompanied by another pattern of disjunction where an administration has an inner core that either uses normal institutions and practices for propaganda cover (as the FO was being used) for its non-public agendas or, if facing active opposition even from within government, sets up a parallel institution that is compliant (as Rumsfeld did in Defence when the CIA doggedly stuck to its intelligence evaluations and sources). As New Labour has done in any number of instances.

By now the witness had moved the Inquiry safely on to considering what the United Kingdom might have hoped to gain from all this, rather than considering why a longstanding rogue policy, introduced by very small part of the Executive under considerable conditions of secrecy, was laying waste to our system of government. Blair had not demanded enough, we were told; although if the US didn't mind if we joined in or not, which seemed to be of only marginal interest to them, it is difficult to feel there was much to claim. The claims the ambassador had sought, really presssed for hard (the archives had failed again with the documentation) were: the provision of better flight slots for Richard Branson's airline and the possibility of internal US flights; and the non-imposition of some US duties on specialist steels produced in the UK. The UK was told the duties would have to go on but some effort would be made to effectively exclude the UK from being charged. Branson didn't get anything either.

Despite our ambassador's further vigorous pressure and detailed notes on the subject (archive-failure again) the US made no post-invasion plans for the occupation. They refused to discuss the aftermath of the attack. It wasn't as if they weren't asked and warned.

So was what occurred what they wanted - the complete collapse of Iraqi civil society?


roym said...

landing slots for branson?

to be honest though, the public seem to have forgotten that at the time more than half wanted to wade in over there. i got mad far too often at radio phone ins, where people were practically demanding to know why we werent already carpet bombing the place.

are you covering this daily?

hatfield girl said...

The hearings are quite raw politics, at many different levels. I can rearrange or put off what I have to do so at the moment I'm looking. Things are piling up so I may not do every session.

Two million actually out demonstrating backed by millions more is my memory of the public reaction in the UK to the attack on Iraq. The Inquiry heard from the UK Ambassador to Washington that there was no widespread public support for attacking Iraq in the US. The Spanish voted Aznar out of office. I don't know what the Bulgarians did.