Anglo-American relationship damaged by leaks
The special relationship between the US and Britain seems more than a little ordinary these days — differences are more acute and the relationship more imbalanced in favor of the former than ever before. Few states have had an easy ride with the Trump administration, given the US president’s penchant for shaking things up, but the leaking of a top British diplomat’s disparaging assessments of the White House have sent the relationship into a tailspin.
The leaks are dispatches from the UK ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, from 2017 until the present day, published in the Mail on Sunday. He referred to the Trump administration as “inept” and “dysfunctional.” The president, as is his wont, immediately retorted that the ambassador was “very stupid” and “wacky” and then refused to deal with him. A second release of excerpts of Darroch’s memos contained an assessment that Trump had ripped up the Iran deal because of his predecessor, that “the administration is set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons — it was Obama's deal.”
Darroch felt he had to resign, creating an extraordinary precedent where a senior envoy has been forced out by a foreign head of government. Britain looked weak, as if it could no longer pick its own ambassadors.
The ambassador had warm support from the British government. Prime Minister Theresa May said: “It is a matter of great regret that (Darroch) has felt it necessary to leave his position.” She added that it was important to “defend our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.”
But the reaction that mattered was from the man many expect to become prime minister next week. Boris Johnson’s refusal, on four occasions, to back Darroch during a televised leadership debate on July 9 appears crucial. Johnson denied his comments were a factor but friends of Darroch were clear: He apparently saw the footage and decided he could not remain in post. Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan said that Johnson had “thrown (Darroch) under the bus" by not supporting him. Many fear that Johnson as prime minister would just kowtow to Trump and not stand up for British interests. Trump may feel he has the likely next PM exactly where he wants him: In the palm of his hand, however small or large that may be.
Many fear that Johnson as prime minister would just kowtow to Trump and not stand up for British interests
This controversy could have been brushed under the carpet. After all, the 250,000 leaked US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 were crammed full of colorful opinions about world leaders. Among these were embarrassing critiques of Prime Minister David Cameron. President Barack Obama considered him a “lightweight.” The difference in this instance is that, whilst Cameron brushed them off, Trump has reacted.
The leak almost certainly had a political motivation, to undermine not just Darroch but the entire Foreign Office and the civil service. Can diplomats speak freely anymore? Is this the end of candid assessments being sent from missions across the world? It might mean that leaders will rely more on the media, not their paid professionals. Many joked, half seriously, that future US cables about the British government might make interesting reading if ever leaked.
Darroch’s replacement will be tasked with the delicate challenge of piecing together and overseeing US-UK trade talks for the post-Brexit era.
All of this is an early preview of what will almost certainly be a bruising contest of wills between a new pro-Brexit government under Johnson and the senior civil service. The Foreign Office is viewed — in the ranks of the suspicious-minded Brexiteer world — as a Remainer bastion, determined to thwart their every move in concert with the Treasury.
Who was the leaker? The police have been called in to investigate and have ruled out the possibility of it being a hack. They are confident they are homing on this new “Kim Philby.” Duncan estimated that about 100 people in government would have had access to the documents. It could be a politician or a civil servant. A new twist to the saga is that the journalist who broke the story, Isabel Oakeshott, is dating the chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice. He has denied any involvement but, nevertheless, this will only fuel suspicions that a hard-line Brexiteer orchestrated these leaks.
The leaker has significantly damaged Britain’s interests and the transatlantic relationship. This, given its longevity, should be robust enough to recover from a few leaks, but Trump does not take kindly to any criticism. The thing is, nothing in Darroch’s memos is outside the norm of everyday coverage of this White House. The administration is divided, there are huge rows. Trump has been mired in scandal. How many people believed the official narrative about the aborted bombing of Iran — that the president pulled back over concerns about probable civilian deaths? He had no such qualms over the flattening of huge parts of Mosul and Raqqa.
Yet, as much as Darroch may have echoed the majority of the Washington commentariat in highlighting the administration’s dysfunction, he inadvertently has exposed another — the British government’s. So bitter are the Brexit divisions, so polarized is the debate, that leaks are more commonplace, trust is at a premium and the general view of the British public is that government is not working at all. Three-and-a-half months from Halloween and the UK is at serious risk of making an unplanned, painful and damaging no-deal exit from the EU. Trump had a point, if made in his usual boorish and crass fashion, about the utter fecklessness of the UK’s Brexit negotiating approach with the EU. The whole affair is another British own goal.
* Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech