DC Confidential, by Christopher Meyer

Oh Ambassador, you're spoiling us...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

He can be amusing about emissions from nether parts. "I once had an ambassador who disconcerted me by farting loudly and repeatedly in my presence. The Foreign Office handbook on protocol offered me no guidance. Should I feign indifference; or, on the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flatulence, should I join in?" His personal protocol allows for generous use of the f-word, both on the diplomatic circuit and on the tennis court, and for a nude pin-up in his office. Like the student in the chicken factory, and unlike the stereotypical British diplomat of old, he displays a flamboyant cutting edge.

The elaborate courtesies of the old school are sometimes disingenuous, but arguably they are less dangerous than blunt truthfulness. A bungled dispatch, a brusque phrase, a single rude or ambiguous word, may easily set two nations aflame. London must have acquitted Sir Christopher of such imperfections, since he was pressed hard to stay on in Washington. The gutting-knife was wielded less freely in his career than in his book. Several passages indicate an ambassador of commendable patience for whom speed of communication is not the chief desideratum in international diplomacy. He is good at his job. He is well liked by both the Clinton and Bush Administrations (oddly he is mentioned in neither the memoirs of President Clinton nor of his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright).

However, here we find a man whose patience has been so sorely tried by the "pygmies" and pipsqueaks whose country he represents abroad that he no longer can contain himself. With a chicken-gutting stroke, he spills his guts in what seems an almost flagrant disregard for the conventions, flinging insults and snideries in sour complaint or sneering lassitude upon those he has encountered or served as a diplomat in Germany and the United States. Personal prejudices and preferences, suppressed at work, surface freely in retirement. He is negative about Japanese ballet, Helmut Kohl ("Jabba the Hutt"), Harrison Ford's earring, Barbra Streisand's "boredom", the European Commission's Washington ambassador and his "Brillo pad school of diplomacy", "dumb" Europhiles in the Foreign Office, John Prescott, and Number 10's minor functionaries - "an odious species that seemed to infest the Blair entourage".

Meyer, it seems, would rather be judged by his American friends: George W Bush ("smart as a whip"), Dick Cheney ("affable and drily humorous"), Karl Rove, with whom he has a friendship "that endures to this day" and, believe it or not, Jesse Helms, the extreme right-wing Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The book does provide some valuable insights into British- American relations. The chapters on 9/11 and on the Iraq War are totally absorbing and often quite moving. The account of Blair's bonding with Bush after 9/11 is wonderfully - if a trifle gushingly - laid out. "Catherine and I bathed in the reflected glory of Blair's status. It was a good time to be British in America."

Christopher Meyer was in favour of the invasion of Iraq. His version of events leading to it is, nevertheless, informative and objective and more than confirms the doubts and antipathies that have assailed an ill-advised adventure. He agreed with three Henry Kissinger conditions for justifying a war: military action must be brought to a rapid and successful conclusion; the US had to get the diplomacy right; and it had to arrive in Baghdad with a clear plan for the succession to Saddam. "Why did Washington and London fail so comprehensively to meet the three conditions?" Meyer laments.

The former ambassador is fulsome in his regard for America and Americans. He and his wife adore Texas, where they are warmly welcomed by the "Bushies". He buys two pairs of expensive Texan high-heeled boots and is proud of them. Here he tests them on some familiar faces.

Comments