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D.C. Confidential by Christopher Meyer

8 September 2007

Today’s book review might well be called ‘Adventures in Diplomacy!’ — if you’ve a mind to be ironic about such things, that is.

D.C. Confidential by Christopher Meyer

D.C. Confidential caused quite a kerfluffle (or two or three) when excerpts from it were printed in the Guardian back in October 2004. Christopher Meyer (or rather, Sir Christopher Meyer) was the British ambassador to the US until fairly recently, and observed the interactions between the US and the UK in the days after 11 September and through the events leading up to the war in Iraq. And while D.C. Confidential isn’t wholly centred on Sir Christopher’s time on Massachusetts Avenue, the portions of it that are have provoked something of a firestorm over ‘breaches of confidence’ and accusations that as a former diplomat Meyer violated the Official Secrets Act in writing this book. While that’s as may be, I think that D.C. Confidential violates the boundaries of good taste more often that it threatens the very fabric of national security.

The real target in D.C. Confidential is not George W. Bush and the White House, but Blair and his Downing Street team. The vitriol almost pours off the pages in places, contempt and scorn evident in his description of Blair putting on a pair of ‘ball-crushingly tight dark-blue corduroys’ in an attempt to look hip and relaxed at Camp David, or when Meyer recalls that Cherie Blair’s hairdresser was left behind (!) on that same trip to Camp David and had to be helicoptered out of there to catch up to the rest of the Blair entourage. But the deeper layer to this bitterness is Meyer’s belief that Blair and the Downing Street courtiers, seduced by the power of the Presidency, shoved the Foreign Office out of the way in order to cuddle up to Bush and the neoconservatives. And naturally, that means that the ambassador-as-FO-functionary loses stature, and in the socio-political whirl inside the Beltway that loss of stature (or even a perceived loss of stature) can be absolutely fatal to an ambassador’s ability to schmooze and socialise freely. Or for that matter, to gain access to the ears of those inside the White House.

Politics aside, Meyer himself doesn’t come across as the most likeable person in general. He spends quite a bit of time rhapsodising about the work his wife Catherine did to promote awareness of international child custody disputes and parental abduction of dual-national children — honourable and decent work, to be sure, but there are places where it seems tossed into the narrative for little or no reason. Meyer’s description of his wife also tends to dwell on her physical attributes in a way that isn’t so much laddish as it is boorish — perhaps I’m being overly sensitive to such things, but several other reviews of this book have also commented on it as well. The diplomatic name-dropping is extensive and perhaps predictable, though in places it’s done to an extent that a better editor would have excised certain sections with a flamethrower. There are places where Meyer writes quite well (the section concerning his time as John Major’s press secretary is enjoyable to read), but they seem to be overshadowed by the bits where he gets far too fond of the sound of his own voice, so to speak.

It’s easy to see why D.C. Confidential has upset so many people. Meyer’s writing style is abrasive, his targets are ambitious, his conclusions are condemning — this book is designed to be confrontational. But the book also has the flavour of one of those angry and abusive letters that you write in the heat of the moment…and, if you’ve any sense, fold up and put aside until the next day when you can read what you’ve written in the cold light of the morning. Sometimes it’s fun to reread those kind of letters, and sometimes what is written is enough to make you cringe. I personally found myself cringing more often than not.

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