Eye of the Tigris

Can Britain's man in Iraq save Tony Blair -- and the legacy of International Clintonism?

By Tina Brown

Published July 17, 2003 9:49PM (EDT)

There's been a round of elegant goodbye dinners in New York for the retiring British ambassador to the U.N, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, whose "soft landing" is the hellhole of Iraq.

Instead of presiding this autumn as scheduled over convivial skull sessions at Ditchley Manor, the Oxfordshire country house for Anglo-American Big Thinks, Greenstock is headed for a portacabin in the military compound in the roiling stews of Baghdad.

The perverse thing about being a diplomat is that this is considered an honor. Because of the increasingly absurd compulsory retirement age of 60, too many of Her Majesty's most experienced diplomatic servants are pottering about Norfolk gardens when they could be sorting out some needy corner or ex-Empire.

Sir Jeremy, who hits the big six-oh on July 27, was plucked out by Tony Blair to be his special envoy for nine months of crisis management, getting the new Iraqi Governing Council off the ground and then, hey presto, creating a new constitution. His wife Lady Anne, who, like her husband, speaks "conversational Arabic," plans to go with him if she can carve out a decent role. "I am not going to twiddle my thumbs and go for long walks along the Tigris," she told a mutual friend.

No one who knows Greenstock doubts he has the right stuff. He started his career as a housemaster at Eton, and he has that keen-as-mustard authority that must have made a disciplinary trip to his study a rather bracing form of humiliation. He's the kind of able, dry-humored, shrewdly cultured Foreign Office fixer who, as Madeleine Albright told me, "always knows how to de-fang the problem," usually with a sly joke or some cunningly crafted, multi-layered bit of maneuvering. Casting-wise, you'd have to think Fox brothers, James or Edward (either would do). Greenstock played a crucial, behind the scenes role in 1999, securing east Timor's independence. "I find that problems are usually solved in small talky groups," he explained at the dinner the other night, "not with big, stated goals."

He will be the rapier to the broadsword of Bush's can-do neocon, Paul "Jerry" Bremer, who is never seen without his Army combat boots. (The boots are for the dust, he claims, but at the singularly undusty Davos conference in Jordan, the suspicion was that they're just another Bush administration cowboy style signifier.)

"It's true that the Brits do have a broader atavistic memory for a country like Iraq," Greenstock told me. "But even we can't understand all the intricacies of a situation which has been repressed for so long. We are very keen to spread the load internationally."

According to Henry Kissinger, British diplomats are peerless when it comes to finding the right words to codify elusive agreements. And they're superb manipulators. "Brits have the ability to make us feel embarrassed when we disagree," he told me. "They use guilt, which is very effective. They also have great analytical gifts. Greenstock brings experience of how issues appear in a multilateral framework."

Or as one network journalist put it, "Greenstock is the kind of Brit who can pull a historical reference out of his ass when he's talking to Al Jazeera."

The British diplomat usually gets a bad rap in movie folklore. Either he's an upper-class twit who can fake it because he knows how to order a decent Chablis and is aware that Uffizi isn't a brand of sparkling mineral water, or else he's a small moustached cutthroat with impeccable manners slicing up the Ottoman Empire over a dry sherry. Chamberlain in his striped pants waving Hitler's signature was the essence of untrustworthy mandarin professionalism, and the Cambridge spies Burgess and Maclean didn't help the crumpets-and-buggery image of the F.O. over here.

The Iraq chaos and the ego tussles between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, along with America's Blair worship, have brought a new appreciation from Democrats and Republicans alike for sophisticated operators like Greenstock. Plus, he has filled the gap of articulating Anglo-American positions since the departure of the high-profile Richard Holbrooke as Clinton's man at the United Nations. John Negroponte, in a dis to the U.N. by the Bush crowd, was denied the Cabinet rank of his predecessors, so is more bottled up in access.

Greenstock's genial, prep-school style could not be more different from Donald Rumsfeld's blustering shiftiness with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" when he quizzed him on how those 16 words about African uranium slid into the State of the Union speech in January. "You don't listen," barked the Rumster (nearly adding, "kid!") when Stephanopoulos had the temerity to press him on how long U.S. troops might stay in Iraq. Between bullying Rummy and boy George the show was a schoolroom smackdown between Mr. Wackford Squeers and Nicholas Nickleby. Under fire, Rumsfeld's irascibility is turning ever more Dickensian.

In boiling Baghdad, maybe Greenstock can overcome the political feuds and save the day for Blair, Bremer and Bush. Either way, though, it's probably a win-win situation for Bush where Blair is concerned. If things more or less work out, the poodle wins the blue ribbon at the dog show and Bush, far more than Blair, gets the political credit. If it all goes to hell, the Bushies get the consolation of seeing the British version of Bill Clinton go down the tubes. Not only is Blair Clinton's best friend and soulmate abroad (still), he's also, in domestic terms, just the kind of politician the Bushies are most afraid of -- socially liberal but with strong appeal to the moderate middle and a spooky talent for stealing the center-right's thunder. The special relationship is all very well but there's also a special relationship between Republicans and Tories on the one hand and Democrats and Labour on the other. If Blair goes down it'll weaken the former but strengthen the latter. Radical Islamism might triumph, but at least it'd be the end of International Clintonism.

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Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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