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Trump’s British ambassador takedown unnerves diplomats

Kim Darroch’s resignation Wednesday came after withering criticism from the president. | Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP Photo

Foreign Policy

Foreign service officers are worried that the leak that led to Kim Darroch’s resignation — and the president’s bullying — is harming diplomats.

Updated

The swift downfall of Britain’s ambassador in Washington has rattled diplomats who are warning that the leak that led to it, as well as Donald Trump’s bullying along the way, is harming foreign service work around the world.

Kim Darroch’s resignation Wednesday came after withering criticism from the president, who was incensed over leaked private diplomatic cables in which Darroch said Trump “radiates insecurity” and that his administration was “dysfunctional.”

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The dust-up is just the latest to occur after the public airing of sensitive diplomatic cables — an era that kicked off a decade ago when WikiLeaks began publishing troves of America’s classified cables. And it illustrates the increasing challenges facing diplomats wishing to share blunt and unflattering assessments. Trump’s furious reaction — he called Darroch a “pompous fool” and threatened to stop working with the diplomat — didn’t help, either, former officials said.

“We have gotten to a point now where it would appear diplomats cannot report to their governments accurately in any way that is going to remain confidential, and that’s the essence of diplomacy,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat who now does consulting work, argued that Trump’s reaction “puts American diplomats a risk.”

“I worked in countries where the leaders didn’t like what we said about human rights & democracy,” Bruen tweeted. “Trump has now given them the precedence for publicly insulting & punishing ambassadors for what they say about how they govern, even privately.”

Diplomats across the globe essentially lead two lives: a public one in which they are cautious about what they say, careful to avoid upsetting host countries; and a private one in which they are duty-bound to report honest, unvarnished analyses about their surroundings with the governments they represent.

The private assessments are usually contained in confidential cables and other documents sent back to their home capitals, with the ambassadors’ contributions considered especially authoritative. Their disclosures can cause significant diplomatic damage.

In 2011, following the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables, Ecuador forced out U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after a memo emerged in which she described corruption in the country. That same year, the WikiLeaks exposures led to the resignation of Carlos Pascual, the U.S. envoy in Mexico, who had criticized Mexico’s role in fighting drug crime.

Darroch, who became the British ambassador to the United States in 2016 after decades in the U.K.’s foreign service, in many ways epitomizes the classic diplomat.

He was always careful with his words in public, especially when talking about Trump, whom he has called “absolutely charming.” But in private, according to the memos obtained by the Mail on Sunday, Darroch described the Trump administration as “inept.”

Trump belittled Darroch on Twitter for two days after the Mail’s report, raising questions about whether Darroch could finish out his U.S. tenure, which was due to end by January 2020.

In a letter explaining his decision, Darroch said he felt he had no choice but to quit now. “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like,” he wrote.

Darroch’s decision drew sympathy in Washington as well as Britain, which is mired in political turmoil over its efforts to leave the European Union and the ongoing Conservative Party contest to replace Theresa May as prime minister. The U.S.-U.K. relationship has faced unusual strain under Trump, who has split with London on issues such as Iran policy and climate change.

“This is devastating,” Andrew Overton, an American who previously served as a spokesman for Darroch, told POLITICO. “It’s heartbreaking that the president undermines U.S. diplomacy and erodes our alliances, and Sir Kim was caught in the crossfire.”

“This is a shame,” tweeted Richard Stengel, who served as an undersecretary of State in the Obama administration. “The ambassador has been forced to resign for telling the truth about a president who lies constantly and reflexively.”

Some in the diplomatic world told POLITICO that while they were frustrated by Darroch’s departure, they could forgive his decision if the ambassador believed he could no longer be effective in his role.

“Your job as a diplomat is to get your host country to do things that your country wants — that’s your primary job,” said Ron Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “When that job is affected, then it’s probably time to leave. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s your fault or not your fault.”

What was more infuriating are the leaks, diplomats said, though they acknowledged they should be used to those.

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“We live in a world of WikiLeaks,” said an ambassador from an Arab country, who insisted, however: “It’s not going to change my behavior in any way.”

The Arab ambassador pointed out that Darroch’s case was unusual in that it appears to be caught up in internal British politics.

The leak, some observers suspect, may have been aimed at ensuring Darroch’s successor is pro-Brexit. Despite being an apolitical foreign service officer, Darroch’s extensive past experience dealing with the EU may have tarnished him among Brexit supporters.

Among those expressing dismay over Darroch’s decision was Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary who is vying for prime minister.

Hunt supported remaining in the EU ahead of the 2016 British referendum that launched Brexit. He pledged earlier this week to keep Darroch in Washington if he replaced May as prime minister.

“Deeply saddened to hear of the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch,” Hunt tweeted on Wednesday. “Standing up for Britain means standing up for the finest diplomats on the world. It should never have come to this.”

Unlike Hunt, Brexit backer Boris Johnson — the frontrunner to succeed May — noticeably did not come to Darroch’s defense after the leaks, even avoiding the question during a debate Tuesday night. That also may have affected the ambassador’s decision to quit.

Neumann said what’s key now is for the British government to reward and praise Darroch as much as possible so as to avoid sending a negative message to the rest of its diplomatic force.

“Give him a high award to show that they’re holding him in respect,” Neumann said.

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