Sticks and Stones … and British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch Packs His Bags
By Roland Flamini
No U.S. president in history has ever unleashed such a fusillade of insults against a foreign ambassador as did President Trump against British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch. But that was sticks and stones. What left the envoy with no option but to pack his bags, was the White House statement that it “will no longer deal with” him. In old fashioned diplomatic parlance he had become persona non grata.
For a head of state to repeatedly attack and denigrate the person of the ambassador of a friendly nation the way Donald Trump has done to Darroch has the makings of a major diplomatic incident. For example, carried to its logical conclusion, the British government could now expel (or ask for the withdrawal of) the U.S. ambassador to London. But both sides are choosing to play down the diplomatic debacle, and by stepping down, Ambassador Darroch has helped diffuse the tension.
Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington, sees the leak in the context of political in-fighting over the shape of British politics after Brexit. On July 22, the British Conservative Party will vote for a new prime minister to replace Theresa May, and the front-runner is the populist, gaffe-prone Boris Johnson.
“Somebody set out to deliberately sabotage Sir Kim’s ambassadorship, to make his position untenable and to have him replaced by somebody more congenial to the leaker,” said Meyer. It’s not British diplomatic practice to withdraw an ambassador before the end of his term, except for serious reasons, and ordinarily, Kim Darroch was not due to leave until the end of 2019.
So who was leaker, or leakers?
Only the Daily Mail knows for sure, but here are some thoughts.
- President Trump has said he would welcome the populist Boris Johnson as the next Downing Street occupant, in which case the White House would want a British ambassador in place who would reflect that anticipated, rosy Trump-Johnson relationship. Trump may even still think that his other favorite Brit, Nigel Farage, could be appointed ambassador to Washington (Farage has said he’s not interested). By the way, it’s not a stretch to believe that someone in Washington hacks foreign embassy e-traffic.
- Darroch’s reports were routinely addressed to the British Foreign Secretary, and from 2016 to July 2018 that was none other than Boris Johnson. If Johnson is as much an admirer of Trump as he says he is, he couldn’t have liked the persistent criticism of his White House chum coming from his Washington envoy, and would hardly be comfortable with Darroch acting as his go-between to the White House. In the past few days, Johnson has been virtually the only critical voice against Kim Darroch, going so far as to say that he would have fired him.
- Besides what he thought were private “telegrams” to London, Darroch led a kind of double life. He worked assiduously (some would say brilliantly) to advance bi-lateral relations, but in private was known sometimes to express to acquaintances both his frustration at dealing with the Trump administration, and lack of admiration for some of its leading denizens. Being less mindful of the perils of the post-Wikileaks era, could have been an exit strategy.
- A bit of a stretch, but Russian hackers could have been showing off the extent of their reach by helping themselves to Foreign Office documents. U.K.-Russian relations have not been good lately, and creating division between London and Washington is always in Russia’s interest.
- Peter Westmacott, Darroch’s immediate predecessor, indicated that the leak went beyond removing Kim Darroch from his Washington post, and was intended to undermine the British Foreign Office’s role in overseeing U.K-U.S. bi-lateral relations, replacing career diplomats with politician more in tune with the Trump politics and preferences.
Not that confirmation was needed, but Trump’s anger fits the pattern of a man who, as Darroch is not the first to say, “radiates insecurity.” A) To Trump, Darroch’s assessment is a revelation of how the Washington diplomatic community, for all its outward politeness, perceives him personally, and how it despises his administration; B) and the thought must cross his mind that, for all their formal correctness, his British hosts on his recent state visit to the United Kingdom were seeing him in the context of Darroch’s critical messages.
*This post was edited and updated on Thursday, July 11.