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Christopher Meyer: what a creep

In his controversial memoirs DC Confidential, the former British ambassador to the US comes off far worse than those 'pygmies' and 'pandas' in government.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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DC Confidential, Christopher Meyer, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.

There is something distinctly creepy about this book, Sir Christopher Meyer’s memoirs of his time as British ambassador to the US during 9/11 and the Iraq war. Maybe it’s the numerous snapshots of Meyer and his wife Catherine smiling with various American and British dignitaries – the couple a picture of toothy, subservient diplomacy – plonked in the middle of a book in which Meyer slates and ridicules some of those very same dignitaries. Maybe it’s Meyer’s rather bizarre fascination with British leaders’ trouser departments: we’re told that John Major made policy decisions in his underpants and that when Blair first met President George W Bush at Camp David, Blair was wearing excessively tight trousers (they appeared ‘glued to the groin’, apparently).

Or maybe it’s the palpable sense of power-envy that permeates sections of the book. Early on we’re told that, despite hailing from a ‘modest middle-class background’, the author considered himself ‘destined for higher things’ – and indeed he came top in the exams to enter the Diplomatic Service in 1965 and went on to work under Tory prime ministers Thatcher and Major. So it is a bit galling when these Blairites, with their non-traditional credentials, gay haircuts and mockney phrases, come to power in 1997 and start bossing Meyer around. ‘We want you to get up the arse of the White House’, says Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, with typical affected laddishness – this ‘young, tousle-haired’ bloke, as Meyer describes him, ‘who had once been my subordinate’. You can’t help feeling that Meyer’s grievances are motivated more by small-minded snobbery than by a desire to record recent events for the benefit of posterity: British ministers are described as mere ‘pygmies’, and the most workerish member of the Blair Cabinet, John Prescott, is mocked for getting tongue-tied in front of American officials and saying ‘the Balklands’ instead of the Balkans (and in a gruff northern accent, to boot).

Or maybe the creepiness is explained by page 239. Here Meyer boasts that, while ambassador in DC, he was ‘told things that were highly sensitive’ by US officials and took the greatest care in communicating these views to London. ‘I would give the reports a very high security classification’, he writes, because if his American contacts were ‘outed’ as the source of his info they would get into ‘serious trouble’. ‘Don’t get me burned!’ the contacts would plead with him. Yet here is Meyer now, burning various individuals in the Blair and Bush governments with his revelations of internal meetings and off-the-record conversations. Indeed, the cover of the book is dolled up to look like one of those top secret memos, with the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ stamped across it in red and a passport-sized photo of Meyer attached to the top as if by a paperclip. Meyer wants us to be impressed by how dutifully he executed his tasks as a diplomat, when he ensured that officials would not be burned – as described in a book in which he burns the confidences he enjoyed as a diplomat.

So by the time you get to the end of the book you aren’t so much thinking, ‘Wow, Blair sucks up to Bush, and followed him to war!’, or ‘Bloody hell, Geoff Hoon is a bit incompetent’ – hardly Earth-shattering revelations – but rather: ‘Christopher Meyer. What a creep.’ It isn’t often I agree with Jack Straw, but he has a point when he says Meyer’s memoirs are disloyal and ill-judged and that Meyer ought now to reconsider his position as head of the Press Complaints Commission, which pretty much means that his salacious revelations can be splashed across the front pages of the papers – officially in the Daily Mail and the Guardian, unofficially everywhere else – with impunity.

Meyer’s memoirs do not signal the start of some revolution from within, with one section of the elite taking on another, but rather are a product of the same leaky climate in which memos and documents have made their way from the Cabinet and Foreign Offices into the press in recent years; where former minister Clare Short can reveal that British intelligence bugged the UN secretary-general during the run-up to the Iraq war; and where memoirs and recollections are published by individuals fresh out of office. Such revelations are less the product of a principled opposition to the Blair way of doing things than they are evidence of an every-man-for-himself culture that permeates government today. With no political coherence or common loyalties to tie it together, the New Labour elite appears as a collection of individuals, bound together by uneasy alliances that are easily broken or undermined (or ‘burned’). In the absence of shared aims or goals, today’s elite is plagued by personal squabbles that can quickly become public. Meyer is no serious opponent to Blairism or Bushism, but rather is a new caste of celebrity leaker, the political equivalent of those blonde girls who fuck footballers and then tell all to the tabloids.

Perhaps the creepiest thing of all is not anything in the book itself, but the way in which the book has been held up as some kind of Holy Bible by people of an anti-war – or broadly anti-Blair – persuasion. Meyer has become something of a hero of the liberal chattering classes, with sections of his memoirs serialised in the Guardian and gushed over by Blair-critical columnists. Even the Socialist Worker, the weekly paper of the Socialist Workers’ Party, the driving force behind the UK Stop the War Coalition, has favourably quoted Meyer’s memoirs, claiming that his revelation that ‘Blair rushed headlong to back Bush’s war’ confirms that ‘Blair was never looking for a peaceful solution’ (again, hardly an Earth-shattering revelation). The lionisation of Meyer by some on the anti-war side is curious because if you read the book you will see that Meyer is pro-war: he supported some kind of invasion of Iraq, still defends aspects of the invasion now, and played a not insignificant role in making sure it happened.

An early clue to Meyer’s pro-war proclivities comes in the pages describing his time as a British diplomat to Moscow during the Falklands War of 1982. That was ‘no time for nuance’, he says. So every morning and evening ‘I would glue my ear to the BBC World Service’, and boo and cheer to developments in the war: ‘Sheffield sunk, oh no! Belgrano sunk, great!’ The Belgrano was sunk by three British torpedoes on 2 May 1982, killing 323 of its crew and injuring many more. Meyer broke out the champagne. ‘Who gave a damn for the Belgrano’s change of course?’ he writes, referring to the still sore point of whether the ship had turned to retreat when the order to sink it was given. ‘We were at war, for God’s sake.’ He also supported the Kosovo bombing campaign of 1999, seeing it in some ways as Blair’s finest moment: that was a good war to stop genocide, apparently.

So it should come as no surprise that Meyer supported some kind of war on Iraq. ‘I was a firm supporter of calling Saddam Hussein to account, if necessary by war’, he writes. He describes Iraq as a ‘toxic stream’ running through his time as ambassador to America. After UN weapons inspectors were expelled from Iraq in 1998, he ‘felt strongly that the UN Security Council should have taken its responsibilities [seriously] and presented Iraq with an ultimatum: either to come into line, or to face war.’ When Clinton and Blair fired cruise missiles at Iraq in 1998, punishment for expelling the inspectors, Meyer moans that it was only a ‘half-hearted response to Saddam’s increasing boldness’.

Meyer was more than a ‘firm supporter’ and ‘strong’ believer in punishing Saddam from the first Gulf War of 1991 to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 – he was an active agent in sealing Iraq’s fate in 2003. In the run-up to the second Gulf War, which Meyer clearly hoped would be more than a ‘half-hearted’ bombardment, he dutifully played his role as a go-between for the British government and US officials. He writes: ‘To reinforce my credentials as someone who had something to say worth listening to, I emphasised the Prime Minister’s commitment to regime change.’ Got that? This former diplomat, who today is lauded for exposing Blair’s brownnosing acquiescence to the Bushies’ vision of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, had various meetings with US officials in which he assured them of Britain’s support for the war. One meeting was with then deputy secretary of defence and all-round hawk Paul Wolfowitz (whom Meyer says he liked), where Meyer spelled out Britain’s ‘Yes, but…’ approach to bombing Iraq. ‘Yes’ we will support you, ‘but’ we have some favours to ask first: please try to get the UN on board, don’t isolate Europe, and do something to stop the escalating crisis in the Middle East. Note there were no Vicky Pollard-style ‘No buts’; just ‘Yes buts’.

So you can stop wondering how Blair and Bush came to have such a close relationship over Iraq: at least one reason why is that Blair had a loyal diplomat in DC who met with Wolfowitz and others to let them know Britain was on side for invading this sovereign state. It is a bit rich for Meyer now to insinuate that Blair was Bush’s poodle, obediently performing his master’s tricks. What does that make Meyer, then? Bush’s poodle’s bitch? Strikingly, Meyer still defends the decision to topple Saddam on the basis of the threat posed by WMD. Even though the Iraq Survey Group that scoured postwar Iraq in 2003 found, in its own words, ‘no shiny pointy things that [we] would call a weapon’, Meyer points out that the ISG did reach ‘the important conclusion…that all the evidence pointed to Saddam’s intention to restart his weapons programmes once sanctions had been lifted’. Oh. So maybe it was a war against the threat posed by WMD of the future, which have yet to be developed and constructed. That makes Bush’s bullshit justification for the war – that Saddam had already-existing ‘weapons of mass murder’ – look like reason personified.

Meyer’s issue with the whole Iraq thing seems to have less to do with political principle than with personalities. He seems irritated that British ministers often made a mess of things in Washington, bumbling before their American counterparts or going along with things too uncritically, before their ‘buts’ had been satisfied. So his critique of the Blair government’s handling of Iraq is summed up in observations such as the one where he says getting Geoff Hoon and Donald Rumsfeld to engage was like getting ‘pandas to mate’. Meyer’s is really a call for a better, more independent British way of doing war, one in which British leaders – who are apparently more given to ‘peacekeeping’ than war-making – can take the lead.

You get the impression that he longs for a British PM to do what Hugh Grant (playing the PM) did in that atrocious movie Love Actually, when he used the occasion of a press conference to stand up to Billy Bob Thornton’s overbearing American President and defend all the good things about plucky little Britain, such as Shakespeare and David Beckham’s left foot, ‘and David Beckham’s right foot, come to think of it’ (hilarious, what?). Meyer and his supporters in the liberal press shouldn’t hold their breath – or perhaps they should keep watching re-runs of Love Actually if they want to see such a thing occur: Britain hasn’t had an independent foreign policy since the Suez crisis of 1956 and, given its lowly standing in international affairs these days, it looks destined to remain in America’s ‘sphere of influence’ for some time.

Meyer helped to make war on Iraq. Yet now he is celebrated by some as a brave exposer of the underhand deals and meetings behind the war. Here, the narcissism of a celebrity leaker meets the opportunism of the anti-war movement, and it’s enough to make even Blair and his pathetic pygmies look like men of principle.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

DC Confidential by Christopher Meyer is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Buy this book from Amazon(UK).

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Topics Politics

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