Stitch-up

Britain's US ambassador leaves after four years dogged by Iraq. David Manning talks exclusively to J

David Manning greets me warmly as he strides into the ornate drawing room of his Lutyens residence. This is known as the decompression chamber, the room where he would sit down with Tony Blair and other aides at the end of a prime ministerial visit to Washington. I have known Manning for nearly two decades, since Moscow and the collapse of communism. Since then his career has taken him to Israel, to Blair's right hand and to the Iraq war. He is now leaving the diplomatic service after four years in the most coveted post of all.

I ask him what he has learned about his time in the United States. Does he agree with a recent article by David Miliband in the NS, in which the new Foreign Secretary talked of a shifting balance of power, with America on the wane as China, Russia and India grow more assertive? Manning suggests rumours of the death of America have been greatly exaggerated. "It's very easy to underestimate the power of this country to reinvent itself. There is still an extraordinary energy here. If you want something done, America is still the place to come and look for the pioneering new technology, the capital formation, the people who will take the risks."

As for the so-called special relationship, he says it remains special "at all sorts of levels", notably through economic ties and intelligence-sharing. But he is also keen to point out the differences. "One has to be careful not to say that the United States is the UK on steroids. We are different societies. It's very important to understand where we're different as well as where we see things the same." He talks of a "profound difference in the view of the role of the state, role of religion, and social mores such as gay marriage". Then he brings up the "p" word. "All the time I have been here we have seen the poodlism charge. It's a very simplistic view of the political and broader relationship. We have a natural affinity and a natural friendship, but we're very different, too. It doesn't help either of us to pretend that it isn't true."

He cites areas of diplomatic divergence. "We don't see eye to eye on the importance of a multilateral approach. We want to live in an international system that is predictable, that is very clearly rules-based. We join every club that's going." The Americans, by contrast, talk about coalitions of the willing. "There is much more of a debate here about 'why don't we do this unilaterally?'," he says. Each country has "a different approach to engagement" towards countries such as Cuba and Iran. "We feel you have to engage with people you disagree with profoundly. [Here] there's much more likely to be a view which is 'keep these people at arm's length'." On climate change: "When I came here there were pretty profound arguments about the science. Those have changed. But it's still very difficult here to get people to accept our line of argument that you can't solve this on new technologies alone; you can't do this alone on a voluntary basis. You're going to have to have mandatory emission caps, a carbon-trading system."

Testy exchanges

Manning was at Robin Cook's side when, as foreign secretary, Cook earned the opprobrium of the Israelis, and the more muted displeasure of the Americans, by meeting Palestinians at a planned Jewish settlement in Jerusalem in 1998. Manning has rarely concurred with the White House on Israel, but has been far too discreet to let his views be known in public. Even with Blair there have been spats. Last summer, Manning was in despair, as were a number of cabinet ministers, over the prime minister's refusal to criticise Israel for invading Lebanon. Eventually, after some testy exchanges, he helped to alter the British position with the call for an immediate ceasefire.

"We've never hidden the fact that we take a different view [from that of the Americans] about Palestine. We think this is a dispute about land, not just about terrorism. We have tried hard to push this in ways that have not always been welcome here." The outgoing ambassador makes the following appeal to those who will follow him, using language US politicians would not dare utter: "It is vital to signal to the Palestinians themselves that we care about justice for them. It is vital that we say to the Israelis we absolutely accept that you've got to have a guaranteed right to exist; we've got to show the Arab world that we really care about this problem. It's very important in the overall relationship we have with Muslims around the world, because this is, naturally, a completely neuralgic point for them. That affects our discussions about terrorism, radicalisation, whatever you want."

A diminutive, soft-spoken man, Manning seems haunted by the failure to shift the US approach (see Andrew Stephen's article on why America is afraid of the Israel lobby). "Is it a sadness to me that I sit here, 12 years after I went to Israel, and we are still stuck where we are? You bet." Blair's attempts to engage Bush on Israel-Palestine are well documented, but he took the view that disagreements should be kept in private. Given the differences that Manning talks of, I suggest the public may have been misled about the state of the relationship. "I think that's true," he says. "I don't have a ready remedy for that." He adds: "If you accept my thesis that it is better for both sides to be clear where we disagree, then I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't think the relationship will diminish . . . if we are clear about where we have differences. I don't think there's been much of an interest in the UK in highlighting difference. The story has been: we're poodles. It's hardly as if we've been sitting here pretending that we're some kind of echo chamber for American policy."

So why did Blair act the way he did? The answer is part calculation, part personality. "You have to be aware there's also the danger that if you go round trumpeting that you've changed people's views then there's a backlash." He cites the British presidency of the G8 in 2005. "I doubt very much people around here were thrilled that he chose climate change and Africa as the themes." Blair, he said, pursued his priorities, but did not advertise the differences. "Do we think that shouting loudly will make it work better? On the whole, British politicians don't do it that way."

Few people saw Blair more frequently, more intensely, than Manning during his two years as his foreign policy adviser, a period that began in the week of 11 September 2001 and ended a few months after the Iraq war. "You have to understand Blair the person before you get into this. A lot of what he was doing with Bush, he was doing with Clinton. Blair was very clear about the doctrine of liberal interventionism. This was not something . . . invented to justify close relations with George Bush. You have to understand he believed very strongly."

How is it that Manning, whom many consider to be one of the wisest and most decent men in public life, was party to the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of modern times? I never imagined he would succumb to Blair's Manichaean world-view, but even now some of that slips in. "It's a curiosity that people have lost the memory of the fact that the Labour Party has very strong views about dealing with dictators, fascists and people who trample on human rights. And Saddam was a monster. We tend to forget this," he says.

Even though he signed up to the theory, Manning was careful to point out the dangers from early on in 2002. What of Blair and the intelligence that led to war? "He believed the WMD story. It's not true that it was made up and that he always knew it was made up. Was it wrong? Yes. But the idea that he somehow sat down and confected this story and that was the justification for the policy he opted for is not true." By his own admission, Manning, "as a consumer", was just as enthusiastic about the information being processed by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet he makes a curious admission. "Were we wrong about WMDs? Yes, but we don't have a very good track record on intelligence on Iraq." This dates back to the first Gulf War, when nobody was prepared for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. "That was a pretty bad mistake," he says. If that was the case, why was the intelligence not treated with more circumspection this time around? "The tendency had always been to underestimate what Saddam was up to."

I ask Manning to confirm that Blair signed up in principle to Bush's war aims when they met at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, a full 11 months before the war began. Manning denies this. "If he did, he didn't do it in my hearing." He concedes that prime minister and president dined alone that night, but says that when Blair gave him a read-out afterwards, "He didn't talk to me as a prime minister saying to me, 'I've made up to mind we're going to war with Iraq.'" Indeed, he says that even in late 2002 Blair suggested to Bush that if WMD searches by the UN's chief inspector Hans Blix suceeded, military action might be unecessary - except that it would transpire that Blix would not find anything, because there was nothing to find.

Make peace, not war

Manning then makes a remarkable claim. Blair was desperate for a second resolution at the UN Security Council, not just to give him cover for war, but because, in his heart of hearts, he did not want military action. "Until very late he hoped there would be an international coalition that would work through the UN." He hoped pressure would be applied, so that either Saddam would quit of his own accord or neighbouring countries would help push him out. Blair "was always in favour of regime change, but that did not mean he always wanted regime change through military means. He must have known it might come to military action, but I have always believed he hoped and probably believed there was a way of getting there by using the UN to put pressure on Saddam. I don't think he ever wanted to go by the military route." In the end he had no choice. He was boxed in, worried about transatlantic splits. "He knew what the stakes were. He accepted it might come to this, but he always wanted to do it in a different way. I've always believed he would much rather it hadn't taken place."

This story is one of tragedy, rather than lies or hubris. Manning provides one more example to support his case. Blair, he suggests, was in effect deceived by the White House and the neoconservatives over plans for the reconstruction of Iraq.

In summer 2002, Blair sent Manning for a rare one-to-one with Bush to express his misgivings. There were, as Manning wrote in a leaked memo, no plans for "the morning after". Bush assured the British that he was on the case. The state department was entrusted with the task of preparing for postwar nation-building. Blair put great faith in the moderate secretary of state, Colin Powell. Neither man was a match for Dick Cheney, the vice-president, nor for Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary.

Even as the defence department (DoD) prepared to take over the running of Iraq, using Rumsfeld's infamous "invasion-lite" idea, Blair and Manning were being assured by Bush that the state department would take the lead role and that he was "very confident" about the postwar plans. They believed him. "We now know that the preparations were all blocked. There were plans made and deployed in the state department, but in the end the state department wasn't allowed to take the job."

I suggest to him that Bush and the neocons had pulled a fast one on Blair, and he provides a less-than-fulsome denial. "Was it a double-cross? I don't think they set out to double-cross the prime minister. I don't think that is true. I think what you see here is confusion. I've never entirely understood what happened, but I assume that, in some kind of inter-agency discussion, Rumsfeld's DoD said: 'We're going to do this.' I did not know that the DoD was going to take over the running of the country. We didn't have any sense that that was about to be the way postwar Iraq was going to be run."

The mood in Downing Street changed early on during the occupation, when the looting began. "That was the moment I remember having real feelings of disquiet. Then we got very concerned when we heard the army was being disbanded and when we heard that de-Ba'athification was going ahead on the scale it was." It was in these critical weeks that the long-term aims of the war were undermined. "Was a key period mishandled and opportunities lost? Yes. I don't think anybody can see that the immediate postwar situation was anything other than a failure. We had hoped that rapidly the situation would stabilise, that it would be possible to introduce reconciliation, get the economy moving quickly and rebuild society. Did it happen quickly? No, we failed. We were over-optimistic, as we perhaps were after the collapse of the Soviet Union, about the powers of this place to regenerate itself."

Iraq has left its mark on Manning. He does his best to defend the decision, suggesting that "the story isn't over yet" and that it may not be a failure in the long term. He is similarly protective of his former boss. "Iraq casts a very long shadow for him," he says, and hopes that Blair's legacy will take into account achievements such as Northern Ireland. "I admired him. He did not blow with the wind."

The Bush administration, he says, has shown more dex terity post-Iraq. He points to its readiness to use diplomacy in dealing with North Korea. On Iran, the Americans "have come in behind the Europeans" and "it is wrong to say they have only one mode of operation". Will it come to military action against the Iranians? "I don't see any intention on their part to use hard power on Iran . . . Of course there are pressures, but there is no sign for the moment that that is where the president is." He also says: "I would like to see a bolder effort by all of us to engage with Iran more broadly, so that the nuclear file becomes just one area of the dossier."

New man

Manning will be replaced in early October by Nigel Sheinwald, an altogether different character. After Christopher Meyer's showmanship and Manning's earnestness, Britain's interests in Washington will be represented by more of a bruiser. Perhaps that will be in keeping with Gordon Brown's cooler, more pragmatic dealings with the White House. Manning says both Bush and Brown described their first meeting at Camp David to him as "fine" - hardly a ringing endorsement.

Certainly, I find the mood in Washington more testy than at any recent time. Just as the British withdraw from Basra, much to the fury of the White House, so the Americans - from their military chief in Iraq, David Petraeus, to Bush - proclaim that their "surge" is working. The split could not be more pronounced. "You're right, it's not as close yet," Manning admits. "Personal relations of that kind don't develop in the same way, but you'll find a regular pattern of consultations. Life dictates they'll have to get close."

I ask Manning what has changed in his three decades in the service. When he started, Britain was "really struggling. In 1975 doing this job involved trying to explain why the lights had been switched off." Then, the Cold War was in full swing. Now, he points to a Europe "whole and free" (to use a phrase coined by George Bush Sr), the re-emergence of China and a flourishing Indian democracy. "Many more people have been taken out of poverty. Eastern Europeans don't get the knock on the door at midnight. By any measure there are a lot more democracies." This is, he says, "a better world".

He sounds several warnings, however. The west remains poor at handling post-conflict reconstruction; it has failed to deal with energy security, or with Islamic radicalisation and terrorism. Russia, he says, has become a dispiriting example of big money meets nationalism. During Vladimir Putin's first years in power, Blair took pains to win him over - tea with the Queen in London and visits to a beer bar in Russia. Wasn't this a classic case of Blairite charm over substance? "I don't think it was naive," Manning says. "There were serious attempts to engage. It just hasn't worked out. The mood has changed," he says, pointing to the rise in the oil price. "It is easier to be nationalistic when you're rich than when you're poor." The real mistakes were made during the early 1990s. On privatisation, "We were too dogmatic. We were in too much of a hurry. That sort of change, in a system that has been totalitarian for 75 years, takes time to work itself out."

One of Manning's projects on his return to London is to push for a World Education Bank. This would be a global fund to create opportunities in developing countries, but not through the World Bank or other institutions that carry so much baggage. "We must be able to provide access to funds without our fingerprints on them." Perhaps, like Blair with his peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, this, too, is atonement for all that has gone wrong in Iraq.

Manning: the CV

Born 5 December 1949. Public school at Ardingly, followed by modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna

Joined Foreign Office in 1972. Has also served in Paris, New Delhi, Warsaw and at Nato

His wife, Catherine, writes thrillers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Ironside

Was in charge of Moscow embassy on first day of 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev

Foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair, 2001-2003

UK ambassador to the US, 2003-2007

Research by Matt Sandy

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