British Envoy Dishes on D.C. in 'Confidential' Robert Siegel talks with Christopher Meyer about his autobiography, DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain's Ambassador to the U.S. at the Time of 9-11 and the Iraq War.
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British Envoy Dishes on D.C. in 'Confidential'

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British Envoy Dishes on D.C. in 'Confidential'

British Envoy Dishes on D.C. in 'Confidential'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL,host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. From 1997 until 2003, Christopher Meyer was Britain's ambassador to the United States. It's a stint that he's written about in a memoir called D.C. Confidential. The last two years of Meyer's posting to Washington were marked by the run-up to the war in Iraq, in which Meyer's boss, Tony Blair, was a key U.S. ally.

Christopher Meyer says that he first heard mention of Iraq as possibly linked to 9/11 the day after the 9/11 attacks. It was in a phone conversation with Condoleezza Rice, who was then National Security Advisor.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MEYER (Former British Ambassador to U.S., author D.C. Confidential): I called up to express condolences, and to ask whether there was anything that we, the British government, could do to help in New York or at the Pentagon. And, and of course asked the obvious question, who do you think did it? And she simply suggested the possibility that maybe Iraq had something to do with it. But this wasn't advanced as a, as a firm piece of information. I mean, already al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, was in the air.

SIEGEL: Britain, you write, was very skeptical of the Iraqi role in the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. MEYER: Yes, yes. We, our intelligence people were always extremely skeptical about it.

SPIEGEL: Did you find that that idea actually had any legs with Bush administration officials? I mean, did they persist in the belief that there, truly persist in the belief that there was an Iraqi role in 9/11?

Mr. MEYER: Well, there were some people in the administration who, I think, thought that sooner or later it was going to be possible to make a direct connection between Saddam and al-Qaida. It wasn't so much that Saddam had had a direct role in 9/11. It was that if you looked hard enough, you would find that nonetheless he had had relationships, or a relationship with al-Qaida. And I remember there was a big dispute about the relationship of Saddam's regime with this al-Qaida camp in the north of Iraq. I don't think anybody disputed that camp was there, the question was, was it outside or inside the authority of Saddam's regime? And I think most people thought it was outside his control, but there were still people in D.C. who were keen to make a link there.

SIEGEL: From the British standpoint, was war inevitable, from what you were hearing from the Americans?

Mr. MEYER: Well I think I'm in a minority view in believing that war with Iraq became inevitable very late in the day. I don't think it became inevitable until some time very soon after Saddam's declaration, widely regarded as fraudulent, of his holdings of weapons of mass destruction which he delivered to the Security Council on the 7th of December, 2002. I think it is after that date you can start talking inevitability.

SIEGEL: But Prime Minister Tony Blair's role in bringing the United States to the United Nations, he was a very strong advocate of that, as you see it was not merely providing a fig leaf for, for war, but he actually believed in the possibility that this might end in some other result other than war.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah, I think that's right because, you see, if you accept that first position, and I know a lot of people on the United States side of the Atlantic do actually believe this. If you accept that position, you also have to accept that the whole process of negotiation in the United Nations, starting in September, and effectively running all the way up to the eve of war, that all of that was a fig leaf, and was entirely fraudulent.

Now I don't actually believe that either the, those leaders were lying to their public opinions. And I think that there was a genuine attempt to try and settle this in a way other than going to war.

SIEGEL: I want you to describe for us a bit the institution of the British career diplomat, who actually gets to be Ambassador to the United States. Something almost, almost unheard of working the other way. We would naturally assume that you would have given a tremendous amount of money to the prime minister's reelection campaign to have gotten the embassy here, because that's how you'd get the embassy over there.

Mr. MEYER: Well, you know, there's so many ways in which you can measure the difference between the American political tradition, and the British political tradition. I mean, you join the diplomatic service, and if you're any good you get promoted through the ranks, and in the end you become an ambassador. And fortunately you do not have to pay Tony Blair any money to get the job. In fact, you hope that he will pay you a reasonable amount of money to do the job.

SIEGEL: You describe how having started out as a Russia specialist in the foreign office, when in America and when studying at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, you came to the idea that, really, Britain should have America specialists. It should train people to try to understand us.

Mr. MEYER: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Because I didn't come to America until very late in my career. I didn't cross the Atlantic until I was 40, and, over 40, in 1985. And very, very early on the impact it had on me was almost, its mysterious size, its mysterious diversity. The most extraordinary different ways in which it operated. And you discovered very, very early on that a lot of the cultural references were so very different from those in the United Kingdom.

And after that, the message I preached in London repeatedly, and that was, actually I have to say to you, with not a great deal of success, was you need to understand United States. You cannot take it for granted that simply because we have a very close relationship, we see American movies, we spend our holidays in Florida, that we understand this country. We don't. It marches, in many ways, to very different beats from those in Britain, and certainly continental Europe.

SIEGEL: Should we assume that, at least in the next few years, at least, a British ambassador representing America's longtime ally, partner in a special relationship, will obviously get face time and the ear of senior people in whatever administration is here? Or is the message to your successors, you come here and you'd better scrap and think and work and call and entertain, and do everything to make sure you get all that?

Mr. MEYER: Oh, my message to my successors is, take nothing for granted. Don't get complacent. There is a wonderful history and heritage of very close relations between Britain and the United States. And that does confer on British diplomats in Washington. But I just don't think this is something that we can be complacent about, and I was always pretty unsentimental about using the phrase the special relationship. Because I didn't want British diplomats in the embassy to think that the British relationship with America marched to some different beat, it was on some different level from other relationships with other countries.

And as the memories of the Second World War, or Churchill and Roosevelt fade, as new ethnic groups migrate into the United States and start to rise up from the ladder, I'm thinking particularly of people of Hispanic origin, then memories and the folklore of the special relationship fade. So the message to all my successors has to be, you've got to work, you've got to graft, it's going to get harder. But if you do do that, you're going to enjoy a wonderful relationship with the United States.

SIEGEL: Well, Christopher Meyer, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MEYER: Pleasure's mine.

SIEGEL: About your experiences, and your book. Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to Washington is the author now of D.C. Confidential, subtitled, the Controversial Memoirs of Britain's Ambassador to the U.S. At The Time of 9/11 and The Iraq War.

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