Playing the Interagency Game

This week’s Corridors of Power excerpts an interesting interview with former British Ambassador to the United States Sir Christopher Meyer, which provides just one example of the often dysfunctional relationship between agencies of the U.S. government.

The turf battles and policy fights between arms of the U.S. national security apparatus — State, Defense and CIA, to name three — were reportedly particularly vicious during the run up to the Iraq war. Critics often cite this as one reason why post-invasion Iraq policy was so poorly coordinated. Rather than drawing on all the strengths of the U.S. government to develop a coordinated plan, goes this line of argument, a weak National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice — supposedly a policy coordinating body — was steamrolled by Rumsfeld at DOD and Cheney in the White House, who also sidelined a more circumspect Powell at State, etc.

According to Sir Meyer, lack of interagency communication created the need to cultivate back channels for gleaning information, an opportunity for a foreign diplomat. Here’s the item from Corridors:

FEEDING TIME AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT — Thanks to the famous Anglo-American special relationship, Whitehall’s ambassador to Washington has the kind of entrée that is the envy of his colleagues. Just how deep that penetration can be is revealed by Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador during the Iraq war and beyond, in a recent interview for the Cambridge (England) University British Diplomatic Oral History Program (pdf file). An extract:

“[As ambassador] you wormed your way into the upper echelons of the Administration so that you had as near as dammit instant access as and when you wanted it. But there was a price to be paid [which was] to find yourself being an actor in the inter-agency game. . . . And particularly when things started to brew up on Iraq, which was really throughout 2002, you discovered that the State Department wanted to know what you knew was going on in the White House, and what was being said by Tony Blair and George Bush to each other, because the records of conversations in the American system go round much more slowly, it they go round at all; likewise in the Pentagon.

“In the meantime I wanted to know, in the case of the State Department, what they thought was happening in the inter-agency process, and where the point of gravity was. So we were using each other, and I would go and see the Deputy Secretary of State, Rich[ard] Armitage . . . and his words to me always, when I came in, were, “Feed the beast! Feed the beast!” which meant, “Give him raw, warm, red-blooded intelligence.” I’d tell him what was going on in London and what I’d picked up at the White House. In return, I expected high-grade stuff, and he always delivered.”

For past editions of Corridors of Power, see here.

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