Who’s Special Now?

Sir Kim Darroch

Poor Donnie, that mean British ambassador said nasty things about the president, calling him “inept,” “insecure,” and “incompetent.” In leaked cables, Sir Kim Darroch warned London that the White House was “uniquely dysfunctional” with aides engaging in “knife fights.” Darroch, in the secret reports, added that President Donald Trump’s scandal-afflicted presidency could “crash and burn” and that Trump might be “at the beginning of a downward spiral… that leads to disgrace and downfall.” Darroch did suggest, however, that the Teflon president, who has shrugged off numerous controversies in the past, might “emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator.”

Truth is not a defense in Trump’s Washington, and the thin-skinned president reacted predictably. In a series of tweets, Trump wrote, “I do not know the Ambassador, but he is not liked or well….  ….thought of within the U.S. We will no longer deal with him.” In comments to reporters Sunday, Trump drew on his vast repertoire of “the best wordsto say, “The ambassador has not served the U.K. well, I can tell you that. We are not big fans of that man, and he has not served the U.K. well. So I can understand it, and I can say things about him, but I won’t bother.” Somehow, those best words are always the same words.

Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States

Darroch was doing what ambassadors are supposed to do. One of the functions of an envoy is to report to the country he or she represents about the country where the ambassador is stationed. As Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to Washington, put it, “Yes, yes, everyone does” report his or her impressions. It would be foolish to assume that the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the 1930s did not tell Washington about the rise of the Nazis, the repression of dissent, the treatment of Jews, and the revitalized military. Similarly, U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union constantly informed the State Department about who was in favor and who was not, and their cables discussed the repression of dissent and the shortages of consumer goods. All that is part of the job.

Daniel Fried, who served as an assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, says Trump’s Twitter response to the leaked cables was the “functional equivalent” of declaring Darroch persona non grata. Trump’s public reaction — and the clear message that the White House would no longer work with the ambassador — was “a nasty diplomatic step and an unfriendly act.” Fried further noted that Trump’s behavior “rather proved the British ambassador’s point now, didn’t it?” 

Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May, who is leaving her post as soon as the Conservative Party names a successor, stood by Darroch, with her office saying at the beginning of the controversy, “Kim Darroch continues to have the prime minister’s full support.” Later, May told Parliament, “Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.” She went on to say, “Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice.” Despite the prime minister’s support, Darroch resigned, telling his bosses, “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”

One of the villains in this episodes is Trump, who put his narcissism and vanity before American interests. Virtually, any other president — think Barack Obama, in particular — would have dusted off the shoulder of his suit jacket and carried on, dealing with the ambassador, because, after all, Britain is our most important ally and business must be conducted, even with people one does not like. But, Trump’s fragile ego was wounded, and Darroch knew his time in Washington was up. Trump, and the State Department, rarely deal with ambassadors, anyhow. When the president announced — on Twitter — the pullout of U.S. troops from Syria, where Britain, as well as France, has deployed troops, some of whom depend on American forces for transportation and intelligence, Darroch was not informed ahead of time. 

“For me, as a foreigner, it was fascinating,” said Araud, the former French ambassador. “It’s what happens when a populist leader takes command in a liberal democracy. These people don’t recognize or accept the idea that an ambassador or a bureaucrat could be of any use. They only want to deal with other leaders.” Trump would rather talk face-to-face with tyrants like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin because they flatter Trump and stroke his ego. They may laugh at how they play him, but, rest assured, the laughter is in private.

Nigel Farage

Darroch’s resignation has caused an uproar in Britain. Most British citizens and officials have praised Darroch for his professionalism and for providing candid analysis of the Trump administration. For Trump, the leaked cables provided an opportunity to criticize Britain and Prime Minister May, which he has done ceaselessly since taking office. Trump has injected himself in the controversy over Brexit, the decision Britain made in 2016 to leave the European Union, but which the U.K. has not yet implemented. Trump and the “Leavers,” as those who favor Brexit are called, share a populist and anti-elite point of view. It is no surprise that Trump is on good terms with Nigel Farage, the anti-immigrant racist who led the pro-Leave forces in the referendum three years ago.

Boris Johnson

In the race to succeed May as prime minister, Trump backs Boris Johnson the former London mayor and former foreign secretary. Johnson — the odds-on favorite to defeat Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary — is the other villain in this fiasco. In a debate with Hunt, Johnson declined to give Darroch solid backing, which left the ambassador with no choice but to resign. Trump has praised Johnson in the past, and if Johnson becomes prime minister, it is reasonable to expect that the British-American “special relationship” will come down to their private connection. Many in Britain fear Johnson will become Trump’s “poodle.”

Britain and America have a “special relationship” because the two nations share common values and goals. Trump has done his best to trash the relationship, but it probably will survive in the long run. One thing is certain in the short run, whoever becomes Britain’s next prime minister will need the United States. Britain must leave the European Union by October 31, 2019, and without a trade relationship with the continent, Britain will have to negotiate one with the United States. Those negotiations should provide insight into the “special relationship” between Trump and Johnson, if he prevails in the leadership fight.

Posted July 12, 2019


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