A political war that backfired: former UK ambassador to the US launches his memoirs on Iraq

In advance of publication of his memoirs, Britain’s former ambassador to the US describes Tony Blair as liking the vision thing, but weak on detail, not interested in the ballast behind the ideas, and impatient.

Julian Glover and Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian

A small, hand-addressed blue box on Sir Christopher Meyer’s desk provides a clue to his background. It contains a miniature stone replica of the White House and was a gift this month from Karl Rove, President Bush’s political adviser. It a sign that Sir Christopher is not just another former ambassador but a man close to the heart of Republican America.

As British ambassador to Washington from 1997 to February 2003, he was the man who introduced a wary Tony Blair to Mr Bush. He led the way towards the unexpected mating of New Labour with the American right, a relationship that eventually took Britain to war in Iraq.

He did not just arrange meetings between the two leaders but spoke up at them. He was a confidant of both sides, with regular private meetings with everyone in the White House from vice-president Dick Cheney and his aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, now being prosecuted in Washington, to the president himself. He reinvented what it meant to be Britain’s ambassador to Washington, a dominant figure in the capital’s social life as well as in politics.

His posting overlapped the Clinton and Bush administrations and, with access to both the US and British sides, he was well placed to track the debate in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. He supported the war but is far from happy about the handling of the aftermath. “I don’t believe the enterprise is doomed necessarily, though, God, it does not look good,” he says in an interview with the Guardian marking the publication of his memoirs, DC Confidential. “A lot of people think what we are going to end up with is precisely what we didn’t want.”

It is not a book that will make comfortable reading for Mr Blair and those who served him. He is the first of the insiders involved in the planning of the war to publish a first-hand account. He is not flattering about the way the prime minister, his ministers and advisers went about their task. Now as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Britain’s newspaper watchdog, he works from a small, shabby office just off Fleet Street, a far cry from the embassy receptions and official Rolls-Royce that once ferried him around the US capital. He looks at the breakdown of Iraq now with the detachment of an outsider – but one with a unique insight into how the war came about and what could have been done differently.

He contrasts Mr Blair’s meek approach with Lady Thatcher’s dealings with the White House. Mr Blair behaved very differently from what Sir Christopher calls “the Thatcher style”. He saw it first-hand on many of her trips abroad.

“Thatcher had no hesitation on the phone, or surging into the Oval office to blaze away if she thought Reagan was doing something stupid. And she did on a number of occasions and sometimes it was extremely effective and certainly did not damage the relationship at all. I think Tony Blair and Downing Street were reluctant to perform in that way,” he says.

And for all his rhetorical strengths, Mr Blair was surprisingly weak on detail. He faced a president who was sharper than Europeans generally assume. There were “moments of great power and strength exerted by Blair, usually in the rhetorical framing of issues. But we see, how can I put it, less attention to detail than some of these issues demanded.”

Lady Thatcher took pride in knowing more detail than her officials. “That is why it was terrifying to be summoned into her presence because if you did not know your stuff, she would expose you. There was never that danger with Tony Blair.”

Sir Christopher, who had access not only to all the Bush-Blair phone exchanges but position papers written by Mr Blair, was in a position to know.

“Tony Blair was not in that mould,” he says comparing him with Lady Thatcher. “I don’t mean he was idle or lazy, but he was impatient. He liked the vision thing, whether it was about Kosovo, Putin’s Russia or Saddam Hussein. But he wasn’t interested in the ballast behind the ideas. He reminded me of a continental European politician. Kohl or Mitterrand.” But Sir Christopher adds: “He never made a fool of himself.”

Nor did Gordon Brown, who crossed the Washington ambassador’s path on his frequent visits to the US. “On attention to detail, he was the polar opposite of Blair,” he says. “I have rarely come across two political people that are so different.”

He recounts the tale of a trip to New York he took with the chancellor. He feared that Mr Brown be a “dour lump of granite” but instead found him chatty, energetic and furiously well informed.

“Whammo, off we went talking about American politics, all kind of things, and he was scribbling his speech. I was impressed by it,” says Sir Christopher.

None the less, his descriptions of ministers and officials will be acutely embarrassing to some of those involved in planning the Iraq war – a fact that led him to fear the Cabinet Office might try to block his book. Already this year the memoirs of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former UN ambassador who later served in Iraq, have been withheld from publication on the orders of the Foreign Office.

Sir Christopher says that Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, blocked the book personally and that it will not be published “until another foreign secretary occupies that chair”. “Deep throats inside the Foreign Office tell me so,” he adds.

So what, two-and-a-half years after the invasion, do the president and prime minister have to do now? “I think the US and ourselves are on the horns of an absolutely impossible dilemma,” he says. He opposes an early pullout of US and British troops. Abandoning the task of rebuilding the country would leave “the relatives of at least 2,000 American servicemen and 98 British servicemen with a legitimate question about what they died for”.

But he accepts that the task of rebuilding may now be impossible. “There is no doubt that the presence of American and British troops to a degree motivates the insurgency. So this is agonising for Bush and I think it is agonising for Blair, all of us really.” He also dismisses the prime minister’s claim that the war has not exposed Britain to terrorist attacks. “There is plenty of evidence around at the moment that home-grown terrorism was partly radicalised and fuelled by what is going on in Iraq,” he says. “There is no way we can credibly get up and say it has nothing to do with it. Don’t tell me that being in Iraq has got nothing to do with it. Of course, it does. The issue is it is part of the price we have to pay and should be paying for the removal of Saddam Hussein and at the moment the jury is out.”

He never expected to have such doubts at this stage. “I was a war supporter. I still think it was the right thing to do to bring Saddam to heel.”

Writing the book, a process he began on a family holiday in France last year, as well as the worsening situation in Iraq, has led him to think hard about what should have been done differently.

In Washington, he says, ahead of the war, “there was a massive amount of wishful thinking which led to really not working through in detail and assiduously what would need to be done after Saddam was driven from power. They were being told by people that they would be greeted as heroes and liberators.”

The reality, of course, turned out to be different and Sir Christopher’s view is that this should have been predicted.

With hindsight, of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, one of the prime justifications for the war, at least in Britain. “This is one of history’s loose ends, which may yet be tied,” he suggests defensively. But he denies that the government suspected all along that Saddam was less of a threat than was being claimed in public. “I do not know anyone of any stature in 2002 who was going around saying they don’t have this stuff.”

The US Iraq survey team, sent in after the war, failed to find any WMD after one of the most intensive hunts in history. Sir Christopher suggests they could have been “spirited out of the country into Syria or maybe even Iran. That is a possibility”. To the Americans, though, Sir Christopher says, the war was always about regime change, not WMD. “One of the things that came to me when writing was how political the war was. This wasn’t just a war, it was a political war.” The US, he says, wanted to “replace a bad government with a good government”. It was, he says, the “neo-con vision”.

US officials who planned the war, such as deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, “thought it was possible to bring not perfect democracy but start with a fairly rough and ready version that would be the basis from which you could move on to higher things”.

“Put it like that and it doesn’t sound so loony,” he says.

And despite the current situation in Iraq, Sir Christopher remains an admirer of Mr Bush. “I have got to declare an interest: I like George W Bush. In public, on the whole, he doesn’t do himself justice, at least for a European audience. In private, from the very first time I met him, I found him articulate and interesting. He did do detail. You can argue, millions will, that what he did with those details and the policies he created out of them are not to our liking. But the portrait of an ideological, religious simpleton is wildly off-beam.”

Even now, with polls showing support for the war falling in the US, his mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the indictment of “Scooter” Libby and the question marks over Mr Rove, Sir Christopher’s view is unchanged.

He says he did not start writing for the money and will donate fees from newspaper serialisation to three children’s charities. With his tenure at the PCC extended for another three years, accepting the money was not an option.

Sir Christopher’s book focuses on his time in Washington but covers a career that included stints as John Major’s press secretary. He watched Alastair Campbell, a fellow insider in the run-up to war, go about his job with the critical eye of a predecessor. “Alastair had never been a civil servant and the prime minister he was serving belonged to a party that had been in opposition for almost 20 years.”

At times, Mr Campbell overlooked “the constitutional propriety, the dividing line between what a civil servant should do and a political appointee should do”.

As a Downing Street insider, Sir Christopher experienced first-hand some of the darkest days of Mr Major’s prime ministership. So what does he think about Mr Blair’s troubles in a week that saw the prime minister lose a cabinet minister and almost lose a key parliamentary vote?

“It reminds me so much of those days,” he says. “Somewhere along the line, you reach the point of no return … I wouldn’t be surprised if this was it.” From an old ally of Mr Blair’s, that is a damning comment.

He writes about his time running the Washington embassy which – full of guests, ranging from former prime ministers to members of the royal family and rock stars – resembled a “hotel of eccentrics”. His relationship with Downing Street deteriorated in that tense year before the war. He left the job just before war broke out, even though Mr Blair wanted him to remain for a few more months to ensure an orderly handover.

When he got back to London, he was not granted the traditional formal farewell interview with the prime minister. By contrast, the president and his wife hosted a private dinner party in the White House. “Never put your trust in princes,” he says.

? DC Confidential by Christopher Meyer is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.