September 16, 2007

Sir David Manning and Anglo-American Relations

Sir David Manning is a name that the public today don't recognise, but that those involved in the worlds of diplomacy and politics do. Historians will see him as one of the key actors in the Iraq war and its aftermath- and ever since the mid 1990s in the UK's reactions to the Middle East. He has served in many places at key points in history, he was in Moscow during the coup of 1991 against Gorbachev, served in Israel in the mid 1990s during the peace process, then went to advise Tony Blair after the events of September 11th and furthermore was in Washington during the messy aftermath of Iraq. Manning's interview with the New Statesman's John Kampfner is interesting partly because it shows someone involved deeply within the events of the last couple of years conceptualises their development. This is Manning's story and its a story ultimately of failure.

For David Manning, like most well intentioned people who worked for or cooperated with the present British administration, sees the events of the last few years as being a 'tragedy'. The Atlantic has grown wider and wider over the last couple of years. Tony Blair's aspiration to bridge the sea looks less and less plausible as the years go by, though a different US President may change matters. Its worth remembering that there have been tensions between the British and Americans before- Margaret Thatcher was severely dissappointed with the American response to the Falklands, Anthony Eden was even more upset about the Suez crisis, so much so that American opposition lost him the Premiership. He notes from Washington that 'I doubt very much that people round here [Washington] were thrilled he [Blair] chose climate change and Africa as the themes [of the G8 summit in 2005]'. Such moments of tension reinforce Manning's sense that the relationship between Britain and the US is very close but that the US is not the UK on steroids, whatever that may mean.

But Manning has more to say than just that- for he goes on to describe the major differences and distinctions between the way that the UK sees the world and the way that the US sees the world. Britain is a member of most international clubs going- from the EU to NATO. The United States has seen sovereignty as something to be jealously guarded and scepticism runs deep about anything multilateral from the United Nations to the Kyoto Accord. British and American politics differ in other ways as well. The UK has been far more open to climate change, is more liberal and less religious than the US. In the Middle East, the United Kingdom was always much more pro the Arab case on the future of Palestine. A Yes Prime Minister episode ridicules the British foreign office for its Arabist tendencies. Definitely Manning reinforces the sense that of the two allies, Britain is more open to the Palestinians than the United States- indeed he sees failing to shift the American attitude on the issue as his major failing as a foreign policy specialist.

Over the last couple of years Manning was involved deeply in all of this. Disputing for instance with the Americans that the Palestinian issue was about land not just terrorism. There are also obvious tensions over Iraq. For Manning Iraq has been a failure and Blair's premiership a tragedy. That attitude I would suggest is one reflected in the highest circles of the UK government. Manning reserves the opinion that things might get better- but one senses that he really doesn't believe that. Rather the UK government's attitude is reflected by the recent withdrawel from Basra. Manning recalls that such a pessimistic mood set in early, after the Americans' failure to appreciate the situation in Iraq and their tolerance of looters, Manning refers to 'disquiet' in Downing Street. Ultimately he openly describes the first few weeks of the invasion of Iraq as a 'failure'.

If Manning is clear about the differences between the US and UK about Iraq- then he is also clear that they arose early and that London made mistakes, crucial mistakes in its evaluation of the internal politics of the administration. In Manning's view the mistakes in Iraq preceded from the fact that the internal strategical battle within the US was won by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon not by Colin Powell's state department. He suggests that assurances given to the British by everyone up to and including President Bush were neglected because of the ultimate victory of the Pentagon in the internal Washington turf wars. Manning argues that Blair wishes it had never come to war- wishes that there had been another way- that regime change had been accomplished by the threat of war producing a coup or even by Saddam acquiescing in the UN process. He also blasts intelligence about Iraq- saying that we never have in the West had good intelligence on Iraq. Manning suggests that the perception that before the intelligence had always underestimated Iraqi intentions- say about the invasion of Kuwait or about WMD and so it was assumed amongst the foreign policy community it had this time too. Unfortunately the dial had slipped the other way.

There is much that is interesting in this. Personally I'm not so sure I believe Manning when he says that Blair didn't want war in 2003. I think that he did. There is evidence to suggest from things that Hans Blix said that there was evidence to refute the WMD charge, evidence that the British and Americans refused to acknowledge. Furthermore Manning is being too kind to Blair- for if he really believed in regime change without blood being spilt or through some deus ex machina then he was profoundly naive. Evidence from others suggests that Blair was inside on the effort to go to war from 2002 onwards- even though its perfectly possible that his principle civil service advisor was never told (another indication of the 'sofa' government that Blair practised). Manning's predecessor as ambassador in Washington Sir Christopher Meyer referred to Blair as being star struck by the American President- that doesn't emerge in Manning's account at all.

What I think we see here is the UK's reaction to Iraq which has been subtly different from the United States's reaction. The British as exemplified by Manning and Lord Ashdown have argued that the real failure in Iraq was the failure to have a reconstruction plan. Therefore people like Ashdown have begun seriously thinking about nation building in a way that the Americans appear reluctant to do. For Sir David Manning such concerns were there from the start- possibly the UK did not insist enough upon them. But the real issue is that it would be unlikely that this group of people will embark on another war where there is no plan for day one of the occupation. There seems a certainty in government circles that that was the key mistake. As Christopher Hitchens puts it in a recent interview the real issue was not whether the Americans were right or wrong, but were they competent to get the electricity on in Baghdad or secure the national museum the day after Saddam fell. If anything emerges from Manning's account it is that this is the central lesson Whitehall has learnt from the disaster- a lesson it may not have needed to have been taught but a lesson whose importance has moved up in the priorities of things to be sorted out before any future invasions are contemplated.

Manning's account represents a sober reexamination by someone at the top in 2003 of what went wrong. In that it represents also a reexamination of the special relationship between the UK and US. There is no question that Manning and most foreign policy experts in the UK consider the US as a central ally. Cooperation in various fields from the economy to terrorism is as advanced and important as ever and our aims are often similar- both nations have a stake in the security of the West and the advance of liberal democracy. But Manning's words and the Brown government's attitudes represent a change of tone if not intention towards the US. There is an increased awareness of the differences between the two nations. For example the British willingness to talk is contrasted by Manning with the United States's ostracism of various states- the North Koreans come to mind. Gordon Brown's administration will, he says rightly, have to work closely with George Bush and even more importantly George Bush's successor but the relationship may be judged more soberly in the days to come. One hopes that never again will a British ambassador be able to describe a British Prime Minister as star struck by the White House.

Sir David Manning is a fascinating character- it would be nice to hear more from him in the future about these issues. More substantive than Christopher Meyer and wiser than many of the politicians who were his titular seniors, his thinking about foreign policy is worth listening to. His interview in the New Statesman is worth reading. At times he exaggerates distinctions that I feel were probably less there at the time, but he does give an accurate barometer of what the thinking in London about Iraq and about America is at the moment. In short his solution, more time devoted to nation building and less to shouting obscenities is one with some merit. It would be good if British Prime Ministers in future speak frankly to their American counterparts- the future of the West rests largely on American shoulders, and the Americans need frank friends.

Cross posted at Bits of News.