World

What to Make of the U.K. Ambassador’s Tiff with Trump

Kim Darroch at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Kim Darroch wasn’t guilty of anything heinous, but he had to go — and the attacks on Boris Johnson for saying as much were misguided.

As every schoolboy at once knew when the news broke, Kim Darroch was bound to resign as Britain’s ambassador to the United States as soon as his dismissive comments were leaked to the Daily Mail and published. To describe the man to whom he is supposed to represent Britain’s diplomatic interests and role in the shaping of common policies as “inept, etc., etc., etc.” meant quite obviously that he could no longer perform those tasks effectively.

Even if President Trump had risen grandly above it all (“a little local difficulty” is the traditional dismissal), Darroch would still have had to resign. No one in either the White House or the British Embassy or those famously glittering Georgetown dinner parties could simply forget what he had said. There would have been a sudden hush or suppressed laughter or (worse!) sympathetic commiserations every time he entered a room. He wore the Scarlet Letter — D for diplomacy, destroyed, and damned — on his fevered brow. It wouldn’t wash away.

Was Darroch then guilty of anything heinous? After all, some of his comments were true enough. Trump is impulsive, as his reaction to the leak more than demonstrated. Not to mention: Kim Darroch, meet Ann Coulter. Every conservative columnist has complained that the president has been unable to get a good many of his programs through, notably the Wall, in part because the courts have blocked him. Trump presents a target that is no bigger than a barn door. Any criticism stands a good chance of hitting a sensitive point.

On the other hand, many of Darroch’s comments were no more than the conventional unwisdom of the academic-media complex (sometimes vulgarized into DNC talking points) that European diplomats in Washington typically mistake for the voice of the American people. As such it was a case of exaggerated bias. Trump’s economic policies, for instance, have been undoubtedly successful so far — the fact that America is booming merits at least some mention — and one of the reasons for that is Trump’s program of deregulation. Paris is worth a mass, and 3 percent growth is worth any number of fighting tweets.

But though we may cavil at the ambassador’s unqualified description of infighting in a “dysfyunctional” White House, his actual advice to his colleagues in the Foreign Office was sensible. He stressed (and as events then showed, they needed instruction on this) that the U.S.–U.K. relationship is the single most important foreign-policy relationship to London and it should be protected as such. That may seem obvious to outsiders, but it can’t be taken for granted, since some in London would prefer to switch the U.K.’s emphasis on defense and foreign policy from America to Europe.

So did Darroch’s mistake lie less in his words than in the fact that they were leaked to the media by someone with no concern for his (or the U.K.’s national) interests? That seems to me to be about right. It’s the leaker who, if uncovered, must be punished. But it must also be said that Darroch contributed to his own demise by forgetting Wikileaks which, only a few years ago, showed the vulnerability of diplomatic communications. Every budding diplomat should be urged to remember that his words may end up on the front page of the Washington Post via the Daily Mail . . . and the more colorful his words, the more deadly will be their impact on him.

If it had ended there, as it should have done, then the ambassador, recognized as more sinned against than sinning, could have been moved to another position of honor — Rome, Paris, Madrid — and an able diplomat with writer’s block and a known affection for Brexit appointed in his place. The world would then have moved on.

Instead there has been a duplicitous series of attempts by people at the top of the British Government to ensure that Darroch’s words are exploited to damage others, namely their rivals in British politics, and in particular Boris Johnson, now the almost-certain next Tory leader and prime minister. Any number of “top Tories” (i.e., Tory MPs not actually in the Cabinet) alleged that Darroch had resigned because he was shocked that in a television debate, Johnson had refused to “back” or “support” him. Johnson had, they said, thrown the Ambassador “under a bus,” and that had influenced his decision to resign.

If Darroch really did say this — it was attributed to his “friends” — then his words were a great deal more foolish than anything he wrote in his undiplomatic cable. Senior officials in the Trump administration were already cancelling meetings with the ambassador and making clear that they would not be meeting U.K. ministers visiting D.C. if Darroch were to be present. It should have been obvious that, however unfairly, Darroch would have to go. Seemingly, Theresa May’s cabinet — which is every bit as dysfunctional as the Trump White House, and then some — failed to grasp this inevitability. It sent him a message of undying support in the middle of the week. Johnson was apparently the only person around with any sense of prudence and balance. And it was these qualities that got him into trouble.

At a Tory election hustings shown on television, Johnson was asked several times if he would keep Darroch on in Washington if he became prime minister. This line of questioning was a series of traps. If he promised to keep Darroch, he would be accused of defending his attacks on Trump; if he refused to keep Darroch, he would be accused of abandoning a distinguished Ambassador who was only doing his job. He would have known, as everyone but the Cabinet knew, that Darroch wouldn’t be staying anyway. And he would have sensibly wanted to avoid closing his own options as prime minister for choosing the next ambassador to Washington. (Downing Street had been hinting that Theresa May might appoint a new ambassador to Washington before finally falling through the trapdoor of history.) Accordingly, Johnson said several times, if slightly clumsily, that he wasn’t going to discuss diplomatic postings at an election debate. It wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was the right one.

Whereupon the Remainer and anti-Boris factions within the Tory Party went into overdrive hysteria. Tory MPs in the House of Commons chose to interpret his remarks as a full-blooded rejection of Darroch and to claim Boris had shown himself unworthy of holding prime ministerial office. They were supported in these denunciations by the junior minister at the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan, (while his boss, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the rival leadership candidate, maintained a Delphic silence.) Downing Street joined the briefing against Boris. The Remainer media gleefully joined the lynch-mob, floating the highly dubious speculation that a Brexiteer must have leaked the Darroch memo since it had secured the resignation of an anti-Brexit ambassador. (If anything, the leak has served Remainer interests — but cui bono has been a poor guide to investigating wrongdoing since Cicero.)

All this was explicable in part as a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of voting in the Tory leadership contest against Boris. It was probably too late to change the result, since most votes have already been cast, and it was too plainly a setup to persuade an electorate of Tory activists who are much less respectful towards Foreign Office mandarins than they would have been before its long campaign of resistance to Brexit. Now the striped-pants brigade too joined the anti-Boris and anti-Trump parade. Sir Simon MacDonald, the FCO’s head, held a rally of its civil servants “to express solidarity” with Darroch. The meeting seems to have been a blend of ineffectual anti-Trump defiance, anti-Brexit rally, and handholding for the more snowflake-minded diplomats, but it was a highly suspect event. Diplomats are supposed to represent the national interest rather than their own bureaucratic one, and the independence of the civil service cannot extend to running its own foreign policy. Macdonald and his mandarins joined half the establishment in adding to the atmosphere of hysteria and crisis of this week, in the process showing that others beside Trump can fly off the handle when criticised.

Things now seem to be calming down. Jeremy Hunt has said that there won’t be a new ambassador appointed for the time being. Time to have second thoughts. Veterans recall that relations between London and Washington have survived worse upsets than this. President Eisenhower ensured that British diplomats did not get their phone calls returned by the State Department for six months after the Suez crisis. But this week has been a reminder that until the Brexit crisis is resolved — and it can only be resolved by leaving the EU — it will poison British foreign politics as well as British domestic politics. Remainers are desperate to stop Brexit, and thus desperate to stop Boris. As that has seemed an increasingly hopeless cause, they have become desperate to weaken his prospects of running a successful administration once he’s elected. This week that became a campaign to undermine his ability to run a successful foreign policy based on good relations with Washington.

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