Monday, October 05, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the New Head of Britain's MI6

In Ann McElvoy's Sunday Times (UK) profile, illustrated with Facebook photos of John Sawers in his bathing trunks, copied from his wife's Facebook page, and headlined: "On Her Majesty's Not-So-Secret Service"... (ht Charles Crawford)
In 2001 Sawers was dispatched as ambassador to Cairo — in effect a listening post for the Middle East. Then in 2003 Blair sent him to Iraq, to report on the aftermath of the invasion. It took only four days for the newcomer to issue a devastating verdict. Sawers soon sent a cable entitled “Iraq: what’s going wrong” back to Downing Street, the FCO and the Ministry of Defence, clearly informed by a multiplicity of sources in Baghdad. It combined an intelligence-gatherer’s breadth with political analysis. Neither was it short on self-belief: “A Baghdad first strategy is needed. The problems are getting worse in the capital and it is the one place we cannot afford to get wrong. We need a clear framework on which Ba’athists can return, a more concerted effort on reconstruction, and an imaginative approach on the media. The clock is ticking.”

He noted further that the US administration in Baghdad was “an unbelievable mess — no leadership, no co-ordination, no strategy, no structure, inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis”.

Most controversially, he declared that the 3rd (US) division, which was battle-weary, should “go home and be garlanded as victors” and that the British should put its battalions onto the streets of Baghdad instead.

Blair’s response was mixed. He did not put British troops in Baghdad — which would have been seen as a snub in Washington, though, as David Owen points out, “It would have been a very sensible thing to do at the time and it could have at least slowed the descent into chaos in the capital.”

In Iraq, the PM wanted to use Sawers as a trouble-shooter, and there was plenty of trouble to be shot. So for three months he was the British government’s special representative in Baghdad, then he headed the British side of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme — his graduate physics background ensuring, as one other member of the team wryly put it, “that he was the one person who probably really knew the ins and outs of a nuclear bomb”.

The shadow of Iraq still hangs over Sawers’ new appointment. Not least because it follows that of John Scarlett, whose authorship of the WMD dossier led to allegations that the service had allowed its work to be manipulated by the government of the day.