Sunday, May 26, 2013

John le Carré "A Delicate Truth"

I have a feeling, assuming there’s someone there with the inclination to do the writing, that when twenty-second or twenty-third century historians turn their gaze back to concepts like liberal democracy and the Westminster system of government they’ll identify the early years of the twenty-first century and the agendas some of the characters in this latest le Carré are pursuing as the era and the agency that more or less killed them off.

That’s not to suggest that liberal democracy, characterised by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons (Wikipedia), or the Westminster system, where the Prime Minister ... leads a Cabinet which is responsible to the lower house, ... a career public service ... impartially serves the government of the day ... The armed services are outside of politics and act on the instructions of the government and The rule of law prevails, with an independent judiciary, subject to the Constitution (source) always operated as advertised.

At the start of A Delicate Truth, Operation Wildlife, a 2008 top-secret mission involving the CIA, British special forces and American mercenaries from Ethical Outcomes, a private security operation, aims to exfiltrate an arms dealer in league with jihadist terrorists visiting the British colony of Gibraltar.

It’s a covert extraordinary rendition operation instigated, on the basis of information received, by bullying New Labour junior minister Fergus Quinn, a marooned Blairite of the new Gordon Brown era who, given the nature of the beast, can’t afford to be directly connected to it. Quinn might have little time for the Foreign Office establishment, but he needs someone there on the ground, and recruits a middle rank civil servant in his fifties, an honest-to-God Foreign Service dobbin, gives him a cover identity as statistician Paul Anderson, and packs him off to Gibraltar believing he’s doing his bit for Queen and country in the war on terror.

Once he’s on the ground there he’s confined to a hotel room, going stir crazy and unable to comprehend why he can’t get out and about. Then, when he’s finally released it’s straight onto the side of The Rock, where he meets Jeb Owens, seconded on the quiet from the British military and not entirely gruntled about being involved on the fringe of what is, basically, a mercenary operation.

Things don’t run the way they’re supposed to, the Foreign Office dude, who’s not quite the  eyes and ears and, significantly, not allowed to deliver a  yea or nay and the military bloke smell a rat, advise against continuing the operation, get overruled by Quinn, and once things are over Paul is told everything went off without a hitch, bundled onto a homebound flight and transformed back into British diplomat Christopher (Kit) Probyn.

The reward for his service comes with an appointment as High Commissioner to a couple of Caribbean states, a knighthood and the wherewithal to fund an idyllic retirement in North Cornwall. Sir Kit attends the annual fayre at his Cornish village, presides over the proceedings as the lord of misrule and unexpectedly comes across Jeb Owens, the Special Forces leader seconded to Operation Wildlife. He’s ended up in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome territory after an operation that, rather than the unqualified success Probyn had been led to believe, turns out to have been an utter cock-up in which an innocent Muslim mother and child were killed.

Probyn, by nature, wouldn’t be the most committed of whistleblowers, but the manner in which Jeb Owens makes him aware of the utter cock-up, a note purporting to be a receipt for a purchased handbag (Owens has become an itinerant leather worker) found by Probyn’s wife (on the mend from major health issues, so she needs to be reassured) and the involvement of their daughter Emily, a doctor in an East End hospital means he’s going to be kept on task.

When Probyn starts probing the issues he runs across conscientious Foreign and Commonwealth Office idealist Toby Bell, who served as private secretary to Fergus Quinn in the lead up to Operation Wildlife. Toby is out to make a difference ... in a post-­imperial, post-cold-war world and becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with US private intelligence firm Ethical Outcomes, initially through dodgy former British spook Jay Crispin (Third son of a posh Anglo-American family. Best schools. Sandhurst at second attempt. Ten years of bad soldiering. Retirement at forty. We're told voluntary, but one doubts it. Bit of City. Dumped. Bit of spying. Dumped. Sidles up alongside our burgeoning terror industry. Rightly observes that defence contractors are on a roll. Smells the money. Goes for it. Hullo, Ethical Outcomes) though the dealings go all the way up to Mrs. Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.

Toby realizes his minister is hiding something important from him, begins to dig until he uncovers the details and gains the vital evidence by recording a secret meeting on the Cold War era reel-to-reel tape recorder no one thought to remove from the desk he occupies. Sticklers and hair-splitters would no doubt carp about the fact that the ancient device works faultlessly after all these years, but one suspects it was a rather expensive top of the range model that could well have received a biennial service for much of its existence.

Armed with the evidence, Toby goes to diplomat Giles Oakley, who’d been, up to this point, his guardian angel and was largely responsible for Bell’s landing the job in the first place. For his trouble he finds himself suddenly transferred to Beirut while Fergus Quinn suddenly exits the world of politics.

Now, three years later Bell, who le Carré sees as the striving ambitious fellow I fancy myself to have been at much the same age, until I went and messed everything up by writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is back in London, having served his penance, and happens to be writing a novel. There’s also a bit more than a dash of the author in Probyn, apart from the fact that both author and protagonist live in rural Cornwall.

The problem for the would-be whistleblowers, of course, is that by trying to lift the lid on the details of a botched operation and bring its authors into the spotlight they’re meddling in matters that a secret state that relies on plausible deniability and subcontracts out its dirty work to maintain that deniability would prefer to leave under the carpet, so we’re headed straight into classic conspiracy thriller territory, as the meagre forces of good and righteousness race to assemble evidence before they can be silenced, which leads to the inevitable climax.

The sirens multiplied and acquired a more emphatic, bullying tone. At first they seemed to be approaching from one direction only. But as the chorus grew to a howl, and the car brakes screamed in the street outside, Toby couldn’t be certain any more - nobody could be certain, even Emily - which direction they were coming from.

That’s the final paragraph, and you might regard quoting it as verging on spoiler territory, but you knew (or at least I can claim that I did) that it was always going to end in tears. Like most of the key events in the plot line, the consequences are kept offstage, which only adds to the underlying menace that lies behind the seemingly affable old-boy mentality that appears to operate among the upper echelons of Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

That’s familiar territory for long term le Carré fans, but the ground rules and the goal posts, in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, have been moved. While the likes of Giles Oakley have been there all along, they’re smart operators who can read the changes in the wind and are all too willing to climb aboard the neo-con bandwagon. That means, despite the traditions associated with their own armed forces they’ll go along with the outsourcing of sensitive matters like Operation Wildfire to private contractors in it for the money.

As le Carre puts it here, It’s so much easier if I come to you and say, ‘Here’s the contract, I want you to liberate Sierra Leone, I don’t give a toss who you take with you and try to keep the killing down.’

Or, in the words of Fergus Quinn as early as Page 23 of the iBooks eText: Private defence contractors… Where’ve you been? Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint. 

So, as the lines between public and private interests become blurred there’s an ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster (p. 414), all of whom have a vested interest in ensuring there’s no one out there asking difficult or embarrassing questions.

That’s not to suggest that Le Carré’s Deep State, the inner core of the establishment, enjoys a monopoly on shortsightedness, hypocrisy, lies and unfettered greed, and it’s not as if a ruthless determination to protect their own self interest is a recent development.

You can see le Carré’s pursuit of hypocrisy, cant and double-dealing among the political and administrative elite as a theme running through all his work, but faced with recent developments on the world stage, as le Carré put it in an essay in last month’s issue of Harper’s, How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?

And that, of course, is what A Delicate Truth is all about.

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