Wednesday 17 July 2019

Kim Sengupta: 'Attacking an ambassador for simply doing his job is a very undiplomatic move'

Then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon greets Britain’s ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch in January 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
Then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon greets Britain’s ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch in January 2017. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Kim Sengupta

It will be difficult to find many foreign diplomats in Washington who did not share most, if not all, of the views expressed by Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, about the Trump administration.

And it is not just representatives of other nations. As frequent and explosive leaks to the media have revealed, former and current White House staff, American military and the intelligence services have been far more caustic about this extraordinary and toxic presidency.

Some of these views have been expressed in public and some, like Mr Darroch's, in private. The ambassador was doing, in his confidential dispatches, what he is supposed to do: give the government back home a frank assessment of an administration whose actions impact so much on the UK and the rest of the world.

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American diplomats also, of course, make similar reports from where they are stationed.

Publication by WikiLeaks of confidential US diplomatic cables once revealed that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then the partner in what turned out to be the longest war in American history, was described as "paranoid". In France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy was "authoritarian" and an "emperor with no clothes". And these were cables about America's allies, let alone enemies.

But what has been markedly noticeable under Mr Trump is just how openly American diplomats have started to interfere in the internal politics of other countries.

For instance, Richard Grenfell, the US ambassador to Germany, told the London branch of the far-right news network Breitbart (run by allies of Nigel Farage) that he wanted to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe". This was seen as a threat to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition, and the foreign ministry in Berlin demanded a clarification.

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, told a newspaper in the country that "there's no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats"; a claim not only not backed up by evidence, but a partisan one of the type that ambassadors are not supposed to make.

They were not the only ones.

In the Netherlands, the US ambassador Peter Hoekstra at first refused to back down about claims he had made that politicians in the country had their cars burned by Muslims. He did, however, later apologise.

Viewed in this broader context, was what Mr Darroch said about the Trump administration shocking, or even surprising? Particularly when we bear in mind that his task as an ambassador is to try to present as accurate a picture as possible of the people in power.

The ambassador had talked about bitter internal divisions and incompetence in Washington. And we know that this US administration had seen the biggest churn in recent American history, with an astonishing number of departures.

Many of the partings have left bitter legacies, as can be seen, for example, in the description by Steve Bannon, once the president's chief strategist, of Ivanka Trump as being "dumb as a brick". Mr Bannon also described the meeting of Donald Trump Jr, Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner with a group of Russians in Trump Tower as "treasonous".

Mr Darroch had suggested that Mr Trump's career may end in disgrace. Is that such a remote possibility? This is a president whose first years in office laboured under the dark cloud of Robert Mueller's investigation into whether he was the Muscovian candidate for the White House. A president whose national security adviser, campaign manager and personal lawyer were all indicted and convicted by the special counsel: a president who may yet be impeached by Congress and who is still facing 16 investigations.

Mr Darroch criticises the US administration over its attempts to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal. But that criticism has been made publicly by the UK government and other signatories to the agreement - Germany, France, Russia, China and the International Atomic Energy Agency - who all stress the agreement is working.

The British ambassador is sceptical of Trump's claim that he stopped some air strikes because a general, unnamed, told him that 150 people would be killed. The widely held view is that Mr Trump is not a war president and that he resisted being dragged into a conflict by his advisers.

The fact that Mr Trump appears to be averse to a war with Iran is widely considered a good thing: Mr Darroch was not implying that it was not.

In the end, the leak of the ambassador's emails is likely the result of British internal politics. There is little doubt in Whitehall that it was leaked to try to get a hardline Brexiteer into the job of US ambassador in Washington. The finger inevitably points to Nigel Farage, who has long been touting himself as a candidate.

Mr Trump said that Mr Darroch "has not served the UK well". In reality he was serving the UK entirely well in presenting his view, confidentially, of US politics.

That is exactly what the current American ambassador to London will be doing in his dispatches about the chaos and fractured political world of Brexitland and the opportunities this presents to the US.

The real risk of the UK being ill-served will come from an ambassador who fails to send a transparent, candid account of what is happening in Washington because of ideological reasons, such as adherence, for example, to the jihad of hardline, doctrinaire Brexit. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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