New Internationalist

The Spy Who Came to Dinner

Last night I finally got around to watching the latest Bond film Quantum of Solace with my family (very disappointing, we all agreed, on every level, in complete contrast to the excellence of Casino Royale). The film of course features Judi Dench as 'M', the head of Britain's secret intelligence service MI6.
This morning I woke up to read in The Guardian that John Sawers has been appointed head of MI6 in the real world - traditionally known as 'C'. This was a bit of a shock, as I have known John since university in Nottingham. Admittedly our paths have not crossed a great deal over the years since then but we have plenty of mutual friends and only 18 months or so ago he attended a reunion of university friends at my house in Oxford.
Soon after that I rang him up because I was working on a New Internationalist issue on Iran, and I knew that, as a key advisor to the Blair Government on foreign policy, he'd been taking a special interest in developments in the country. He was helpful and clearly very well acquainted with all the most recent reports on Iran. He told me not to take too seriously US press reports that the Bush Administration was intent on attacking Iran before the neocons had to give up the White House and, as it turned out, he was probably right. In contrast, his analysis in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (vouchsafed to a mutual friend at the time) was as completely mistaken (and lacking in intelligence in both senses of that word) as that of Blair himself.
Then last year came the dual announcements that he'd been appointed Britain's Ambassador to the UN and been knighted. The first was the job he'd said he most wanted back at the party; the second just seemed bizarre (I have never been able to comprehend Britain's archaic honours system, with its echoes of empire and its entrenchment of privilege).
But today's news is something else again. We'd had our suspicions about another friend from university who joined the Foreign Office, and whose career path seemed less than conventional. But John's progress had seemed to be so meteoric and so clearly within overt diplomatic channels. The Guardian story makes it clear that he has worked for MI6 in the past, even though his appointment apparently from outside the service now is a surprise.
Yes, there's somehow a frisson of excitement about the announcement - how could it be otherwise, for anyone who had read le Carré or watched Spooks? But as soon as you think about the decisions that have to be made in that job, the lives lost and the grubby compromises made in the name of Western interests, it takes on a different complexion. It makes you wonder about what capacity for ruthlessness was concealed beneath the most charming of facades - and end up being rather chilled by the thought.

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