Interview with former UK Ambassador to US Christopher Meyer on the Afghanistan Debacle and 500 Years of British Foreign Policy Success


I interviewed former UK Ambassador to the United States Sir Christopher Meyer on his new book Getting Our Way: Five Hundred Years Of International Diplomacy. I have begun the book — and it’s a terrific review of five centuries of the world’s big moments and how competitive statecraft in very difficult circumstances turned out. Here is a review from The Guardian.
Getting-Our-Way-500-Years-of.jpgMeyer has important insights into Afghanistan, stating that the “penny is dropping in London that the democracy project in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.” He is increasingly of the view that the entire Afghanistan exercise is a disastrous mess without any “clarity” of objective. He offers a logic-led critique of matters rather than just asserting the Afghanistan War is doomed.
Meyer wrote one of the major insider accounts of the lead up to the Iraq War, reporting from private memos and other personal observations about the Tony Blair-George Bush relationship. I recommend DC Confidential: The Controversial Memoirs of Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S. at the Time of 9/11 and the Run-Up to the Iraq War.
Fascinating diplomat — and great interview. Hope you find it useful.
Leaving Italy this morning — and heading back to Washington.
On other fronts, for those who want advance word, I will be chairing a meeting at the New America Foundation in Washington, right after I land at Dulles, titled “Iraq: The New Forgotten War” with a distinguished former Dutch political leader, Ad Melkert, who was former executive director of the World Bank and who now serves as Special Representative for the UN Secretary General in Iraq.
Melkert attracted a lot of headlines as he headed a key committee that wrestled with then President Paul Wolfowitz over various ethics questions — ultimately resulting in Wolfowitz’s departure from the Bank.
The meeting will stream live here at The Washington Note and also at the website of the New America Foundation starting at about 4:15 pm EST (so anyone around the world can watch). Those in DC are welcome to attend — and more information on logistics is here.
— Steve Clemons


15 comments on “Interview with former UK Ambassador to US Christopher Meyer on the Afghanistan Debacle and 500 Years of British Foreign Policy Success

  1. questions says:

    OT, but related to a previous discussion on health care that has been relegated to the archives:
    The comments on this post say far more than the post does…. The reason for a higher decline-rate for Medicare looks to be incomplete forms, errors and the like. Medicare demands that the forms be filled out properly, while commercial insurers seem to be more tolerant of errors (which might mean that they are paying for things they shouldn’t be paying for and denying some pretty important things all at the same time.) But this is only one post, so maybe there are other issues. The whole system is insanely complex and the data we get all need careful reading.
    And back on topic, one more Looming Tower note: Wright seems to think that Bin Laden is a pretty singular guy and is the only one who could have put the whole package together. It’s an interesting thought to puzzle through.


  2. questions says:

    As a follow up on the Looming Tower which I finally finished — first, I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet gotten through it. It answers huge numbers of “questions” the CT people bring up about why we knew so quickly who was responsible for the 9/11 bombings and why we didn’t “stop” the bombings. It’s powerful, well-written, gripping….
    And perhaps the most interesting insight of all is the CIA/FBI tension. As I understand Wright’s point, the FBI is a law enforcement agency with a preference for gathering info, making arrests, setting up trials, putting the evidence on display, getting convictions and prison time.
    The CIA, on the other hand, prefers gathering information and using it to gather more information. Find ways to infiltrate, pay insiders to spy, pay anyone for any bit of information, and keep it all secret because the mission is information gathering, not information display. Trials expose insiders and techniques, trials “spoil” years of hard work on the ground by making exposing all that labor to sunlight.
    Further, the FBI has a New Jersey old guard gruff generation coming up against a newer generation with a different sensibility. This tension may well have been part of the affaire d’Edmonds.
    And finally, the expose of John O’Neill that seemed so newsworthy may have been the worst thing ever to happen to the US, at least if Wright is correct in his views. So muckraking and distrust of government officials can actually undermine governance, even as it improves governance. Such are the sad paradoxes of our institutions.
    With all of the tensions in purpose, all of the crossed wires, missed moments, all of which are inherent in our institutions, we can only hope to try to see at least some of our blind spots.
    This is more of that necessary impossible stuff. We have to see what we cannot see.


  3. nadine says:

    “There is a huge reservoir of well-trained and well-educated and wealthy young men who want some adventure, some purity of soul, some structure in their psyches. They have engineering degrees, al Qaeda camp training, and nothing better to do with their lives. They’re multi-lingual, well-traveled, from “good” families, able in the world. We can’t really kill them all, we can’t really monitor them all, and yet we have to do something.
    Left alone, they won’t just burn out in a year or two, though they might eventually.
    But not left alone, they might well self-replicate faster. And I think this is a real concern.”
    questions, good comments on the Looming Tower. We do have to do something; while engaging creates one set of problems, leaving creates an even bigger set. The Looming Tower showed what able fantasists Al Qaeda are; how they spun a couple of minor skirmishes into miraculous triumphs over the USSR. With any enemy like that, any tactical retreat on your part gets spun into your imminent defeat and becomes a huge recruiting tool in itself.
    It’s a long war, a generational war. The Islamists always plant the seeds of their own destruction because they have no mindset for practical rule. They promise a paradise and deliver a hell on earth. If only we could figure some way to pry them out of office with a bloodbath, the most practical way to turn the Muslim world against them would be to let them get their chance at rule.


  4. samuelburke says:

    dan, i am glad you read it elsewhere, the next time you find a double posting like that try not to read it twice since its mostly a waste of time.
    thats what i do when i run across something i have read before and it works for me.
    good luck in your endeavors.


  5. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Actually, Dan, perhaps Samuel thought the piece was apropo for both threads. Or have you taken it upon yourself to not only critique the tone of what is posted, but also the content and the placement?
    And how does your “comment” adhere to the standard of civility that you have advocated here, Dan?
    I am, not “baiting”. I am simply pointing out to you that you can carry your self appointed role as monitor a bit too far, Dan. ‘Tis a pity you can’t just keep it to your own gifted style of astute and intelligent analysis, rather than picking at other poster’s zits.


  6. Dan Kervick says:

    samuelburke, I already read that post on another thread here today. isn’t once enough?


  7. samuelburke says:

    “The focus on war by other means over the internet is important, if only because it means that governments are using their vast resources to spread propaganda in a deliberate effort to confuse the debate over important foreign and domestic policy issues.
    “Israel is at the forefront, exploiting its cutting edge telecommunications industry and enabled by its large and powerful diaspora to get out its message. Not surprisingly, its lobbies including AIPAC are also leaders in the effort, sometimes acting openly and sometimes covertly.
    Israel became heavily engaged on the internet during its devastating assault on Gaza last January, when world opinion came down strongly against it, recruiting teams of young soldiers and students to blog in support of Operation Cast Lead. It has recently focused on the UN’s Goldstone Report that claimed that Tel Aviv had committed numerous war crimes in Gaza, supporting a worldwide organized campaign to discredit anyone promoting the report. The latest victim of the smear has been the respected and nonpartisan group Human Rights Watch (HRW). In June Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister pledged that his government would “dedicate time and manpower to combating” human rights organizations. Shortly afterwards Ron Dermer of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office named Human Rights Watch as one of the offending organizations. Many attacks on HRW were subsequently carried out openly using various front organizations, including NGO Monitor which is based in Jerusalem and funded by wealthy Americans. Elie Wiesel, who cashes in on his humanitarian credentials while remaining notably silent over Israeli war crimes, is on the Monitor board and has written a letter attacking HRW. Critical pieces in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times soon followed the initial attacks, commentary that was distributed widely by AIPAC on Capitol Hill and also all over the internet.
    Israel’s Foreign Ministry, headed by right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman, runs a semi-covert program which is openly funded by the government as the “internet fighting team” but which deliberately conceals the affiliation of the “talkbackers.” Ilan Shturman coordinates the Ministry effort, which is run out of the Hasbara Department, “hasbara” being a Hebrew word that is normally translated as propaganda. Shturman’s young and enthusiastic employees work from a prepared script of official Israeli government positions. They are instructed not to identify themselves either as Israelis or as government employees. There have been numerous applicants to work for Shturman. An Israeli source reports that one applicant emphasized his own qualifications, writing “I’m fluent in several languages and I’m able to spew forth bullsh*t for hours on end.”


  8. questions says:

    I’m towards the end of The Looming Tower at this point and the things that stand out to me most, and seem relevant to figuring out a “strategy” for dealing with the region are first, terrorism as an activity is really alluring to a lot of people. It gives purpose, it’s expressive, it structures reality, structures time and space, provides a way to gain honor (see Hobbes on this concept), deals with adolescent, umm, exuberance, a feeling that not everyone outgrows. There are culturally specific ways to be a terrorist, but the activity and anger and honor codes seem to be pretty universal. (Read Neiwert’s work on eliminationism for one of many US versions.)
    Second, these groupings of people who seem to be motivated by DOING things (or at least planning) form and reform as people come and go. When they find money, they do more, when they’re broke some leave, others are attracted by the lack of money, and more plans are drawn up.
    Third, as a consequence of the second point, eliminating al Qaeda will never be sufficient as new groups with only trace relations to previous groups will spring up.
    Fourth, the motivations for attacking shift over time and so getting rid of any one excuse is insufficient for getting rid of the tactic. It’s not Israel alone. It’s not US troops in Saudi Arabia. It’s not even the establishment of a caliphate or bringing the West down. It’s not just bin Laden or any other one person. It’s an internal psychic structure that is universal but isn’t channeled into, say, making a “killing” on Wall Street instead.
    The US provides a lot of ways for people to express, dress, color their hair, scream, dance, have sex and sexual contact and be gay or straight, make money, go to school, find purpose and connection, and still we have eliminationists. (Crooks and Liars has a piece up on a biblical verse that is showing up all over the place apparently. It’s a pretty violent prayer.)
    Putting all of this together in my fevered brain makes me think that the double bind we’re in is about as binding as a double bind can be.
    Our presence in the region is both necessary and impossible. We need to keep pressure on the various formulations of these groups. Money, connections, harassment… are all important factors that must be managed and presence in the region makes it all easier to do so.
    On the other hand, our presence is one more excuse for recruitment and violence. Note that it would seem to be only one more on a long list of excuses that instigators drum up. But it’s a pretty effective one, all in all.
    Obama’s dilemma then is that we need to be there to monitor, and we cannot be there as we cause some of the problems we’re trying to correct.
    There is a huge reservoir of well-trained and well-educated and wealthy young men who want some adventure, some purity of soul, some structure in their psyches. They have engineering degrees, al Qaeda camp training, and nothing better to do with their lives. They’re multi-lingual, well-traveled, from “good” families, able in the world. We can’t really kill them all, we can’t really monitor them all, and yet we have to do something.
    Left alone, they won’t just burn out in a year or two, though they might eventually.
    But not left alone, they might well self-replicate faster. And I think this is a real concern.
    So the question, in my mind at any rate, is how can one do the necessary impossible — be there and not be there simultaneously? (And no, I’m not the only person in the history of the universe to worry about the concept of the “necessary impossible” — it’s pretty standard fair.)
    We can consider being in fewer places, giving ground in some areas. So we limit the presence and we thus limit the motivation for opposition.
    We can consider being there very differently. Not as killing machines but as building machines or helping machines or doctor/hospital/school machines.
    We can consider encouraging hybrid religiosity that is not at all a US-style way of being, but that provides the structure and honor systems that seem pretty necessary. I think this is the hope for a “moderate” Taliban. I don’t think it’ll be moderate, though.
    We can consider, then, being there differently and maybe that’s enough of a change.
    If we end up not being there at all, I would worry less about a “safe haven” than I would about the dearth of monitoring, the ease of reformulating these groups, the lack of pressure and harassment that actually do seem to make planning a little harder.
    When the US finds computers and weapons caches and cell phones and “strangely behaving guys” I get the feeling that’s all helpful. But when the US sends missiles to blow up weddings, not so much.
    So my bet is along the lines of a limited presence with somewhat different behavior such that we don’t lose our ability to find “interesting” things, but we cut down on the negatives. A manged presence rather than a full presence or an absence. A middle ground between the necessary and the impossible.
    My next reading project is Ghost Wars, so I’m guessing I’ll get the downside of the attempt to manage one radical group by supporting another radical group. The Saudis seem to have been doing this for forever and a day, and I get the feeling the CIA has been doing so as well. If we do this in Afghanistan for the duration, we’re courting disaster. We have to find ways to be there without really quite being there.
    Note that playing with the eliminationists and racists on the right has some elements of this as well, the supporting of some fairly unsavory people in order to perpetuate one’s rule. It backfires.
    Quick note to Steve — thanks for continuing with the comments section. My reading has shifted because of this site, and it’s really nice to have a place to dump (mis)constructed sentences as I try to figure out how to think this way and how to blend my regular work with this very new idiom (new for me, that is.)
    I hope the electrons will continue to flow, though I also hope I will post much less often. I get more reading done and my blood pressure goes down.


  9. Paul Norheim says:

    “It seems that sometimes these “foreign policy experts” just throw the BS against the
    wall to what will stick.”
    JohnH, this also applies to the “safe haven” argument re Afghanistan, which Obama
    repeated yesterday. We all know that Afghanistan is not the only safe haven option on the
    planet for Al Qaeda and similar groups – besides areas of Pakistan, there are countries
    like Somalia, Yemen etc…
    “Safe haven” is not an argument any more, but an auto-pilot answer when you lack better
    arguments. It`s an ominous sign that Obama still refers to it.


  10. JohnH says:

    For the record, I try to listen to the viewpoints of others…until they set off my BS alarm.
    For example, Nick Burns on Charlie Rose yesterday. He was talking about how the US has great leverage on China because China values its good name. He claimed that all it would take for China to change its poor behavior in Africa is for a few countries there to call them on it. BS! All it takes is for China to grease some palms of African tyrants to prevent them from ever criticizing China. Which is why China gives foreign aid with few strings attached.
    It seems that sometimes these “foreign policy experts” just throw the BS against the wall to what will stick. And from that emerge talking points that get repeated ad nauseum.


  11. Paul Norheim says:

    AfPak issue Number One is preventing extremist groups from taking control in
    nuclear armed Pakistan. Afghanistan is primarily relevant to the extent that
    events there influence events in Pakistan.
    The McCrystal report was produced before the Afghan election. The fraud, and
    the acknowledged level of corruption in Kabul give the Obama administration
    the perfect excuse to abandon any kind of further escalation of the war in
    The outcome of the election in Afghanistan should be regarded as an
    opportunity for the US administration, to chose whatever strategy they want in
    Afghanistan that may prevent events there to influence the development in
    Pakistan in dangerous ways, without being too worried about the reaction from
    the generals or the GOP opposition.


  12. TonyForesta says:

    I agree that –“the entire Afghanistan exercise is a disastrous mess without any “clarity” of objective.” We divide however on the why’s. Afghanistan like the neverending horrorshow, and excuse for wanton profiteering in Iraq is “all about the oil”.
    No one is honest about our real objectives in the Afghanistan exercise, which have little or nothing to do with evildoers, or fighting terrorists there, so we don’t have to fight them here, or defeating al Quaida, or any of the the ridiculous gibberish bruted and pimped by our socalled leaders and the parrots in the socalled MSM, or the various sundry pundets left or right. Afghanistan, like Iraq is all about the oil, and specifically maintaining and defending and establishing a massive military presense to secure an oil and energy corridor through the Cacausus, circumventing Russia.
    Until and unless all these voices are honest and truthful about our real objectives in Afghanistan, the entire enterprize will always be a catastrophe doomed to fail.
    We don’t know where we’re going, because our socalled leaders, and all the pundits and parrots that pimp or brute the socalled leaders FALSE and deceptive rhetoric, refuse to admit our real objectives in the Afghanistan enterprize, which again are “all about the oil”.


  13. ... says:

    steve, would you agree that the ”other sides” in this are the military industrial complex and the odd neo con strong enough to get out from under a rock thanks the iraq fiasco?? the fact is john h and many of us here would like to know who represents the other side?? is it just the same folks that argue for war 24/7 in general??? war = money… someone is going to miss out if the usa isn’t perpetuating some war somewhere…
    articulate for us who you think the ”other side” or other sides are….


  14. Steve Clemons says:

    Good points JohnH. It is “especially nice” – agreed. For record though I try to remain open-minded and listening to the other sides in this Afghanistan debate. It’s just that over time, I have seen the realities in the AfPak arena come the way I/we have been arguing for a long time. Thanks much for your comment…catch you later. Catching a flight back to USA in a couple hours and need at least a little sleep. all best, steve


  15. JohnH says:

    Nice interview. Of course, it is especially nice to have distinguished foreign policy leaders reiterate what you’ve been saying for a long, long time–“the entire Afghanistan exercise is a disastrous mess without any “clarity” of objective.”
    Or, as the equally distinguished Yogi Berra might say, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”
    If the dance continues with Iran, the farce continues in Afghanistan.


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