There are some diplomats who think that an ambassador’s desk should hold its secrets as much as the psychiatrist’s couch.
Not Sir Christopher Meyer, lately Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador in Washington.
Correspondents based in Washington knew Mr Meyer as an accomplished envoy, and an engaging and sharp-tongued informant. He always seemed to be wearing bright red socks, and perhaps this was a clue to his willingness to make a splash.
It is not a huge surprise therefore that his memoirs, DC Confidential, are full of gossip. One feels a bit guilty about enjoying it. Did he, one wonders, feel a bit guilty about writing it?
The tittle-tattle ranges from acerbic comments about the “pygmies”, as he calls many of the British ministers to visit his residence, to his furious reaction when he felt that Downing Street officials, with whom his relations had undiplomatically broken down, were trying to cut him out of a key meeting with President George Bush. He does not hold back on quoting himself using the “F” word several times.
That aside, however, the main interest of his account is what it says about the invasion of Iraq. Sir Christopher was in post right up to very shortly before the invasion.
Sir Christopher was quick to spot the rapport between his Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and President Bush. He told me early on that in his view, Mr Bush was much smarter than people gave him credit for. He appeared to approve of the new relationship, and in his book he does not hide his approval of the march to war upon which the two men set out.
However, he seeks to distance himself from the results of that war. This is a common solution for the dilemma faced by many officials who supported war, and now perhaps wish they had not. They are rushing to find lifeboats to leave a ship they themselves helped to launch.
He also seeks to distance himself from Mr Blair.
His main complaint is that Mr Blair was seduced by the glamour of American power, and did not use his leverage to slow down the timetable.
He suggests that the invasion should have been (and hints that it could have been) postponed at least until the autumn of 2003. That would have avoided what he calls the frantic search for a smoking gun to prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
It would also have given, he suggests, time for proper post-war planning (as if planning could have stopped the insurgents’ onslaught) and might even have produced a second United Nations Security Council resolution authorising an attack.
Sir Christopher undermines Mr Blair’s claim that the French objections to a second resolution in early 2002 was a total block on any such resolution. He says he never interpreted the French position to be a refusal for ever and a day. The unspoken suggestion is perhaps that Downing Street used the French objection as an excuse to give up on the UN.
It is doubtful, however, if Mr Blair could have engineered a postponement. The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said dismissively that British troops could be left behind if necessary. Vice-President Dick Cheney had not even wanted the UN to be involved, so would hardly have recommended anything which gave it more time.
It is even possible that Mr Blair himself was as keen on the war as Mr Bush. The lessons of Kosovo are often forgotten; it was Mr Blair who made the case for ground action. He spoke in such messianic terms about the mission against Saddam Hussein that one cannot see he would have wanted any postponement.
An important part of the book is the evidence it provides in showing how early the decision was taken to go for regime change.
Sir Christopher refers to a lunch he had in March 2002 with one of the administration’s hawks, Paul Wolfowitz, an account of which was leaked.
Sir Christopher confirms the authenticity of this leak. He told Wolfowitz that Britain “backed regime change”, though he also recommended a strategy for building international support and not a unilateral American effort.
We already knew that by April 2002, when he met Mr Blair at his Texas ranch, Mr Bush was decided. He told Trevor McDonald at Crawford on ITV in April 2002: “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.”
Sir Christopher adds supporting detail. He quotes a Cabinet Office memo that Mr Blair told Mr Bush that Britain would support military action on two conditions. These were that the UN had to be brought into examine the issue of the alleged weapons, and that an effort had to be made to settle the Israel/Palestine issue.
Sir Christopher’s position therefore is that the decision was taken first, and that the UN route and the effort to re-invigorate the Middle East peace process were add-ons. And he admits to doubts as to whether they were really fulfilled.
All of this makes it rather curious that he then concludes that the war was not inevitable.
He says that from where he sat, the road to war looked anything but straight. Yet from where he sat, he could hear the beat of the drums.
Despite his claims, one suspects that history will conclude that the war, if not inevitable, was overwhelmingly likely.