The ambassador’s cables and the Tory election

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There are no secrets in Washington. Everything leaks, from presidential phone conversations to the private lives of politicians. If the traditional news media will not ferret out what is meant to be hidden, the WikiLeaks whistleblowers of the world certainly will.

Which begs the question: How could the sophisticated British ambassador to Washington expect that his torrent of supposedly secret cables denigrating President Donald Trump would not see the light of day? Unless, of course, that was exactly what someone in the United Kingdom Foreign Office expected to happen. 

Sir Kim Darroch, Her Majesty’s ambassador to the United States, arrived in Washington at the beginning of the final year of the second Obama administration. A talented veteran diplomat, Darroch’s career has included a stint as the British representative to the European Union and national security adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron. Darroch was knighted over a decade ago and promoted to an even higher knightly level the following year. Only the top diplomats are accorded such honors while still in active service. 

Darroch’s job, like that of any British ambassador, is to provide confidential assessments to his bosses in Whitehall. His views of Trump are not exactly radical. Many in Washington, including some  Republicans on Capitol Hill, would share his various evaluations of the president’s behavior, comportment and motives. Who, other than his cronies, subordinates and base doubts that the president “radiates insecurity,” or that the administration is somewhat “dysfunctional … unpredictable … (and) diplomatically clumsy”?

Prime Minister Theresa May has launched an inquiry into the leaks, saying she has “full faith” in Darroch but does not agree Trump is “inept” and “insecure.”

Not surprisingly, Trump has all but called for the ambassador’s recall, stating that “we’re not big fans of that man and he has not served the U.K. well.” Thus far, however, the U.K. Foreign Office, despite its concern over potential damage to Britain’s longstanding and highly valued “special relationship” with the U.S., has defended Darroch, asserting that “the British public would expect our ambassadors to provide ministers with an honest, unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country.” 

And one of his former bosses, former Foreign Secretary (and former Defense Secretary) Sir Malcolm Rifkind, not only also defended Darroch on British television, stating that “he was doing his job properly,” but added, “For the most part, I agreed with his comments.” 

Rifkind is hardly alone. It’s difficult to find a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official who thinks highly of our president, though surely there must be some who do. A former minister told me that he was certain the leak came from London. Its timing, so near the election of a new Conservative Party leader and, therefore, prime minister, may have been the proximate cause for a leak that just as well could have taken place six months or a year ago. 

Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, currently is expected to defeat Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, for the job in a vote that already has begun and will continue until July 17. To assert that Johnson was not popular with the senior staff of the Foreign Office is something of an understatement; he was seen in very much the same terms as those Darroch used in the leaked cables to describe Trump. Indeed, the British media have compared Johnson to the American president, though they’ve agreed that Johnson is more articulate and generally more talented than Trump. 

On the other hand, the British media, and indeed his colleagues and subordinates, have viewed Hunt as both competent and professional. Might the leak, therefore, have been an attempt to remind Conservative Party voters what electing Johnson could mean for Britain’s future? Given the bare-knuckles nature of British politics and Whitehall intrigue, that may well have been the case.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Boris Johnson British ambassador British MPs Donald Trump Jeremy Hunt Prime minister Special Relationship Theresa May US-UK relations

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