Backlash begins against ex-diplomats’ “poisonous views” on Iraq, Israel

April 28, 2004

CONTENTS

1. "Lessons of history: those brains at the Foreign Office always get it wrong" (By Andrew Roberts, Times (of London), April 28, 2004)
2. Lead editorial (The Sun, April 28, 2004)
3. "The camels were wrong to get the hump" (Leader, Daily Telegraph, April 28, 2004)
4. "Blair should listen to the experts" (Lead editorial, Financial Times, April 28, 2004)
5. Lead Editorial, (Guardian, April 28, 2004)
6. "How email became a diplomatic incident: Protest written in Tripoli internet cafe snowballed from Arabists' revolt to capture Foreign Office frustration over Blair policy" (Guardian, April 28, 2004)
7. "Backlash begins against 'camel corps' plotters," (Independent, April 28, 2004)
8. "Blast for 'Arabist' envoys" (The Sun, April 28, 2004)
9. Full list of signatories


"BRITAIN'S BIGGEST DIPLOMATIC PROTEST IN A CENTURY" – PUT TOGETHER AT A LIBYAN INTERNET CAFE

[All notes below by Tom Gross]

This is a follow-up to yesterday's dispatch (BBC "goes bananas" with excitement as ex-ambassadors attack Israel) which described some of the initial positive reaction from the BBC, the Independent and sections of the British and international media, in support of the ex-diplomats' stand.

It has now been revealed that what is being called "Britain's biggest diplomatic protest in a century" was originally put together twelve days ago at an Internet cafe in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

A backlash has begun among some politicians and sections of the media against the 52 former diplomats for their "unprecedented open letter."

BREAKING DIPLOMATIC ETIQUETTE

Other papers continue to support them. The Guardian, for example, says in its lead article today that the diplomats are "overwhelmingly right" despite breaking diplomatic etiquette to use words like "dismay," "naive," "illegal" and "doomed to failure."

In its lead article today, the Financial Times – a newspaper which has recently highlighted and condemned European anti-Semitism, while at the same time greatly increasing its criticisms and inaccurate news reporting of Israel – welcomes what it calls "possibly the most stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its foreign policy establishment."

The Financial Times argues that the diplomats should not be dismissed as Arabists, because "the organisers of this most undiplomatic demarche are [actually] Atlanticists."

In fact, contrary to what the Financial Times, BBC, CNN, and the Guardian have been trying to convince readers and listeners in the past 48 hours, the Arabist diplomats behind this protest failed to muster signatures from ambassadors who had served in prestigious non Arabist posts such as Washington, Paris or Nato. "Look at the list - you can't find any grade-one ambassador who has retired in the past 10 years who is on that list," one former envoy is quoted as saying.

THE FORMER GOVERNOR OF THE FALKLANDS

Instead they managed to get such "Middle East experts" as the former Governor of the Falkland Islands to sign.

The initiator of the protest, ex-ambassador Oliver Miles (referred to in yesterday's dispatch) boasted yesterday that his son had told him yesterday morning: "You have thrown your hand grenade [against Blair, Bush and Sharon]." Miles revealed that the three other ex-Ambassadors who helped him compile his protest were Sir Harold Walker, Britain's last ambassador to Iraq, who left in 1991, Sir Andrew Green, envoy to Syria from 1991 to 1994, and Sir Alan Munro, envoy to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1993.

This dispatch contains a selection of 8 of the articles from today's newspapers, some of which I have summarized first.

-- Tom Gross

***

EXTRA NOTE -- To the many journalists from around the world that have written to me so far today asking where the Lakhdar Brahimi comment on not knowingly shaking hands with Jews, referred to in the last dispatch, has been reported, it was in yesterday's New York Sun and Jerusalem Post (url below). I am sorry that I don't have time to reply to all of you individually.

www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1082948693866&p=1078397702269

 

SUMMARIES

THE TIMES: "SPECTACULARLY WRONG"

"Lessons of history No 52: those brains at the Foreign Office always get it wrong," (By Andrew Roberts, The Times of London, April 28, 2004).

(Andrew Roberts, one of Britain's leading historians, is a long-time subscriber to this email list.)

"Tony Blair should be delighted that no fewer than 52 former diplomats have written to him to say that his Middle Eastern policy is 'doomed to failure'. Whenever a collective view has developed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office it has been only a matter of time - and usually not long, either - before it has been proved spectacularly wrong.

"In the superb new biography of Lord Palmerston by James Chambers, it is clear that the majority of Britain's mid-19th-century ambassadors heartily disapproved of his policy of extending liberal constitutions to anywhere that could sustain them; how those long-dead diplomats would have agreed with their successors' haughty statement that the creation of an Iraqi democracy today is "naive"... The best collective noun for any group of British diplomats - let alone 52 of them - is "a cringe"

"... In 1948, the Foreign Office, with the same "long experience of the Middle East" that the co-signatories boasted of, advised the Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin that the Israelis would lose the war of independence and be defeated by the (largely British-trained) Arabs. They estimated that the Arab-Israeli conflict "would be of relatively short duration and would eventually be checked somehow by the UN". Bevin put the timing at a fortnight, but then, as the High Commissioner in Palestine said, Bevin was "completely surrounded by Arabists". It is that group whose hands have finally, after half a century, been wrested from Middle East policy. The letter - signed by the former ambassadors to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and the UAE - is merely a howl of rage at their present exclusion.

"... the FCO's Central Department was irritated in May 1944 that "unnecessary publicity" was being given to Jewish suffering, and stated: "The Allies resent the suggestion that Jews in particular have been more heroic or long- suffering than the other nations of occupied countries." We shouldn't have listened to them then, and, after 60 years of the same kind of stuff, we certainly shouldn't listen to them now."

 

THE SUN: "POISONOUS VIEWS"

Lead editorial (The Sun ,The UK's leading tabloid newspaper; April 28, 2004).

"The 52 former British envoys who attack Tony Blair over his Middle East and Iraq policies are spouting rubbish. They're so ready to appease the ranting dictators of the Arab world that they are known as the Camel Corps. Thank goodness they no longer represent Britain abroad. But their poisonous views live on in the Foreign Office, one of the last bastions of blinkered thinking.

"Just as the weak and the woeful there preached appeasement with the Nazis in the 1930s, too many today have yellow streaks when it comes to dealing with the terrorists of Palestine and Iraq. Far from pursuing policies "doomed to failure", as the envoys claim, Blair and President Bush are acting wisely and determinedly.

"... America battled for years to get Israel and the Palestinians to the peace table, only for their hopes to be dashed by Yasser Arafat... We must not yield to these madmen."

 

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: IT WAS REALLY AN ATTACK ON ISRAEL

"The camels were wrong to get the hump" (The Daily Telegraph, Leader, April 28, 2004).

"... Virtually all the signatories have privately opposed intervention in Iraq; why, then, have they suddenly broken cover now? What seems to have precipitated this letter was not Iraq, but Israel. It was the endorsement by Mr Blair of President Bush's support for Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, while eliminating the leaders of Hamas and redrawing the Israeli-Palestinian border. For an older generation of Foreign Office "camels" (Arabists), this was the final straw.

"... What did the ex-diplomats hope to achieve? They insist that they do not intend to damage Mr Blair, yet they released their letter to Reuters, maximising coverage abroad as well as at home... The letter ignores the fact that the basis for a negotiated settlement was destroyed when Yasser Arafat turned down Ehud Barak's peace offer at Camp David four years ago. That event led to the Palestinian "intifada", the defeat of Mr Barak, the election of Mr Sharon, suicide bombings on an unprecedented scale and the erection of a barrier around Israel. Many people will share the diplomats' regret for the failure of the road map, but the cause lies, not in bad faith by America or Israel, let alone Mr Blair, but in the lack of a credible Palestinian interlocutor..."

 

FINANCIAL TIMES: "BLAIR SHOULD LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS"

"Blair should listen to the experts" (Lead editorial, Financial Times, April 28, 2004).

"In possibly the most stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its foreign policy establishment, 52 former ambassadors and international officials have written to Tony Blair telling him he is damaging UK (and western) interests by backing George W. Bush's misguided policies in the Middle East. It would be comforting to imagine that their comments will be heeded..."

 

THE GUARDIAN: THE DIPLOMATS ARE "OVERWHELMINGLY RIGHT"

Lead editorial (The Guardian, April 28, 2004).

"The publication of the robustly critical open letter to Tony Blair on Middle East policy is a genuinely significant event. The word "unprecedented" is overused and has been much in evidence in the last 24 hours. In this case, though, its use is wholly justified.

"Diplomats... using words like "dismay", "naive", "illegal" and "doomed" - and publish them in the press. That is a breach of the code. It signals the fact that this is an exceptional event that cannot be brushed aside or easily forgotten.

"... But the main thing to say about the letter is that the diplomats are overwhelmingly right. Britain has not exerted its influence to redress these dangerous policies [of Israel]."

 

PROTEST PUT TOGETHER IN LIBYAN INTERNET CAFE

"How email became a diplomatic incident: Protest written in Tripoli internet cafe snowballed from Arabists' revolt to capture Foreign Office frustration over Blair policy" (The Guardian, April 28, 2004).

"The letter signed by the 52 former British diplomats originated a long way from the London dinner circuit, far from the Arab embassies, the Travellers Club in Pall Mall and other haunts of the ex-Foreign Office establishment. Instead, it can be traced to Tripoli, to an internet cafe near the Katib (Grand) Hotel.

On April 16, Oliver Miles, the British ambassador to Libya until 1984, watched Tony Blair in Washington and was incensed by his seeming support for a Middle East plan adopted by George Bush and the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Mr Miles said yesterday that when he became "steamed up", friends told him he should do something about it. He drafted the basis of the letter and sent it to five ex-colleagues. Three replied, offering support.

"I went to Libya for a conference but I knew I could do the coordination from an internet cafe," he said.

He sat down among Libyans using the internet to reach family and friends, carry out research or play games. "It was very cheap. One dinar [50p] an hour," he said.

There was no broadband and communication was slow. But after 90 minutes - and at a total cost of 75p - the diplomats' letter was well under way.

... These diplomats, and many still serving, favoured the "containment" of Saddam Hussein over war. Even those who served in Israel also tend to be sympathetic to the Palestinians and hostile to Mr Sharon.

... The events leading up to the letter began in December when Mr Sharon said he was planning a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a limited withdrawal of illegal Jewish settlements from the West Bank... rejecting any negotiation of the claim of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees to return to Israel..."

 

BACKLASH BEGINS AGAINST "CAMEL CORPS" PLOTTERS

"Backlash begins against 'camel corps' plotters" (The Independent, April 28, 2004).

"It is known as the "school for spies". Britain's foremost Arabists have passed through the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (Mecas) since the British Government opened the language school in Shemlan, outside Beirut, in 1947. So have some of Britain's best-known spies, among them Sir David Spedding, a former head of MI6, and the traitors Kim Philby and George Blake. It emerged yesterday that many of the 52 signatories of the searing letter criticising Tony Blair's Middle East policies are also alumni of the centre, who have become known as the "camel corps" because of their pro-Arab views.

"... It appears that within the "camel corps", the group coalesced around former diplomats with official or unofficial links to Oxford - St Antony's College in particular - including Sir Marrack, Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, and Sir Bryan Cartledge, a former envoy to Moscow..."

 

"BLAST FOR ARABIST ENVOYS"

Blast for 'Arabist' envoys (By George Pascoe-Watson, Deputy Political Editor, The Sun, April 28, 2004).

"Retired diplomats who attacked Tony Blair over Iraq were dismissed by a minister last night as 'Arabists with too much sand up their arses'.

The senior minister hit out at the 52 former envoys who said the PM had put Middle East peace in peril and called US policy in the area 'doomed'. The minister claimed they were too close to the Palestinians, whose suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Angry Mr Blair accused the diplomats of being too one-sided. He said: "We must balance the suffering on both sides. It's important we accept and recognise that the suffering of the Palestinians is appalling and we need to change that but we also accept there are innocent Israeli civilians being blown up by suicide bombs and terrorist acts."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "It is important for us to try to work with the United States." Mr Blair stood with President George Bush as he backed an Israeli plan to kickstart peace in the Middle East 11 days ago."

 

FULL LIST OF SIGNATORIES

Sir Brian Barder, ex-high commissioner, Australia
Paul Bergne, ex-diplomat
Sir John Birch, ex-ambassador, Hungary
Sir David Blatherwick, former ambassador, Ireland
Graham Hugh Boyce, former ambassador, Egypt
Sir Julian Bullard, ex-ambassador, Bonn
Juliet Campbell, former ambassador, Luxembourg
Sir Bryan Cartledge, ex-ambassador, USSR
Terence Clark, ex-ambassador, Iraq
David Hugh Colvin, former ambassador, Belgium
Francis Cornish, former ambassador, Israel
Sir James Craig, former ambassador, Saudi Arabia
Sir Brian Crowe, former director general, external and defence affairs, Council of the European Union
Basil Eastwood, former ambassador, Syria
Sir Stephen Egerton, diplomatic service, Kuwait
William Fullerton, ex-ambassador, Morocco
Dick Fyjis-Walker, former chairman, Commonwealth Institute
Sir Marrack Goulding, former head of UN peacekeeping
John Graham, former Nato ambassador, Iraq
Andrew Green, ex-ambassador, Syria
Victor Henderson, ex-ambassador, Yemen
Peter Hinchcliffe, ex-ambassador, Jordan
Brian Hitch, former high commissioner, Malta
Sir Archie Lamb, former ambassador, Norway
Sir David Logan, former ambassador, Turkey
Christopher Long , former ambassador, Switzerland
Ivor Lucas, former assistant secretary general, Arab-British Chamber of Commerce
Ian McCluney, former ambassador, Somalia
Maureen MacGlashan, foreign service in Israel
Philip McLean, ex-ambassador, Cuba
Sir Christopher MacRae, former ambassador, Chad
Oliver Miles, diplomatic service in Middle East
Martin Morland, ex-ambassador, Burma
Sir Keith Morris, ex-ambassador, Colombia
Sir Richard Muir, ex-ambassador, Kuwait
Sir Alan Munro, ex-ambassador, Saudi Arabia
Stephen Nash, ex-ambassador, Latvia
Robin O'Neill, ex-ambassador, Austria
Andrew Palmer, ex-ambassador, Vatican
Bill Quantrill, ex-ambassador, Cameroon
David Ratford, ex-ambassador, Norway
Tom Richardson, former UK deputy ambassador, UN
Andrew Stuart, ex-ambassador, Finland
Michael Weir, ex-ambassador, Egypt
Alan White, ex-ambassador, Chile
Hugh Tunnell, ex-ambassador, Bahrain
Charles Treadwell, ex-ambassador, UAE
Sir Crispin Tickell, former UN ambassador
Derek Tonkin, former ambassador, Thailand
David Tatham, former governor, Falkland Islands
Harold "Hooky" Walker, ex-ambassador, Iraq
Jeremy Varcoe, ex-ambassador, Somalia


FULL VERSIONS OF SOME OF THE ARTICLES SUMMARIZED ABOVE

"THOSE BRAINS AT THE FOREIGN OFFICE ALWAYS GET IT WRONG"

Lessons of history No 52: those brains at the Foreign Office always get it wrong
By Andrew Roberts
The Times (of London)
April 28, 2004

Tony Blair should be delighted that no fewer than 52 former diplomats have written to him to say that his Middle Eastern policy is "doomed to failure". Whenever a collective view has developed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office it has been only a matter of time - and usually not long, either - before it has been proved spectacularly wrong.

In the superb new biography of Lord Palmerston by James Chambers, it is clear that the majority of Britain's mid-19th-century ambassadors heartily disapproved of his policy of extending liberal constitutions to anywhere that could sustain them; how those long-dead diplomats would have agreed with their successors' haughty statement that the creation of an Iraqi democracy today is "naive".

Similarly, Lord Salisbury saw the Foreign Office as the enemy for its continual pressure to end Britain's "splendid isolation". He disliked the process by which diplomats sometimes went native, telling Queen Victoria: "An occasional change of post increases the usefulness of a diplomatist. If he remains too long at one post he falls under special personal influences, or gets mixed up in local quarrels." Going native is notoriously true of the FCO's Arabist ambassadors, many of whom signed yesterday's letter.

Yet before the letter is taken to be indicative of general FCO feeling, we ought to check the small print. There are no former ambassadors to Washington among the signatories, no permanent under-secretaries, only two ambassadors to a great power and an awful lot of third-rankers. We have been treated to the views of our former ambassadors to very minor countries indeed, such as Switzerland, Chad, Cameroon, Colombia and Chile. Oh, and a former Governor of the Falkland Islands. Two of the countries - Luxembourg and the Vatican - are so small they could comfortably be carpeted over in Axminster by the Treasury without anyone noticing the cost. Even if we accept that these scores of CMGs and KCMGs somehow do represent mainstream FCO opinion, what of it? Zara Steiner's work shows how few of its supposedly first-class brains foresaw the cataclysm of 1914; the appeasement policy of the Thirties was directed from an FCO that agreed with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax; its top echelons were keen on "dual-flag solutions" at the time of the Falklands.

Finally, and tellingly, the FCO has been the primary British engine for pushing Britain closer and closer towards a European superstate. The best collective noun for any group of British diplomats - let alone 52 of them - is "a cringe".

Many in the Foreign Office, with their happy memories of reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom at Oxbridge, cannot come to terms with the very existence of the State of Israel. The reference in their letter to "one-sided and illegal" actions which "cost yet more blood", for example, is not to Palestinian suicide-bombers but to the policies of President Bush and Ariel Sharon.

In 1948, the Foreign Office, with the same "long experience of the Middle East" that the co-signatories boasted of, advised the Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin that the Israelis would lose the war of independence and be defeated by the (largely British-trained) Arabs. They estimated that the Arab-Israeli conflict "would be of relatively short duration and would eventually be checked somehow by the UN". Bevin put the timing at a fortnight, but then, as the High Commissioner in Palestine said, Bevin was "completely surrounded by Arabists". It is that group whose hands have finally, after half a century, been wrested from Middle East policy. The letter - signed by the former ambassadors to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and the UAE - is merely a howl of rage at their present exclusion.

Some of my most depressing moments as a historian have been spent reading FCO minutes. The phrases are nicely turned, the writing is grammatically faultless, the historical allusions learned. Nonetheless, the FCO's Central Department was irritated in May 1944 that "unnecessary publicity" was being given to Jewish suffering, and stated: "The Allies resent the suggestion that Jews in particular have been more heroic or long- suffering than the other nations of occupied countries."

We shouldn't have listened to them then, and, after 60 years of the same kind of stuff, we certainly shouldn't listen to them now.

 

THE CAMELS WERE WRONG TO GET THE HUMP

The camels were wrong to get the hump
Leader
The Daily Telegraph
April 28, 2004

The Prime Minister could be forgiven for wondering what he has done to provoke 52 retired diplomats to publish a letter denouncing his Middle East policy. Virtually all the signatories have privately opposed intervention in Iraq; why, then, have they suddenly broken cover?

What seems to have precipitated this letter was not Iraq, but Israel. It was the endorsement by Mr Blair of President Bush's support for Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, while eliminating the leaders of Hamas and redrawing the Israeli-Palestinian border. For an older generation of Foreign Office "camels" (Arabists), this was the final straw. Not only had Mr Blair embarked on a Middle Eastern war in the teeth of Arab and European hostility; by aligning himself with Israel, he had humiliated the camels.

What did the ex-diplomats hope to achieve? They insist that they do not intend to damage Mr Blair, yet they released their letter to Reuters, maximising coverage abroad as well as at home. Opinion is bound to be divided about the propriety of a public protest by professionals who do not lack access in Whitehall. Since their views are probably shared by serving diplomats, it is in the public interest for them to be aired. The signatories are indeed officials of "long experience" who deserve to be taken seriously.

The letter accuses Mr Blair of "abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land", in favour of Israel's "one-sided and illegal" policies. What are these abandoned "principles"? Surely they cannot mean the Palestinian "right of return", which no Israeli leader could accept? Perhaps they mean that the "occupied territories" must be subject to negotiation. But with whom is Mr Sharon to negotiate?

The letter ignores the fact that the basis for a negotiated settlement was destroyed when Yasser Arafat turned down Ehud Barak's peace offer at Camp David four years ago. That event led to the Palestinian "intifada", the defeat of Mr Barak, the election of Mr Sharon, suicide bombings on an unprecedented scale and the erection of a barrier around Israel. Many people will share the diplomats' regret for the failure of the road map, but the cause lies, not in bad faith by America or Israel, let alone Mr Blair, but in the lack of a credible Palestinian interlocutor.

Turning to Iraq, the diplomats state that "to describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful". How would they prefer to describe those who have maimed, killed and dismembered not only hundreds of coalition troops and civilians, but also countless Iraqis? There is room for debate about which tactics are most effective in suppressing these insurgents, but suppressed they must be if Iraq is ever to govern itself.

The letter condemns as "naive" the notion that the coalition could create a democratic Iraq. What, though, do its authors propose? That the UN should "work with the Iraqis themselves, including those who are now actively resisting the occupation, to clear up the mess". After the oil-for-food scandal, after fiascos from Rwanda to the Balkans, to place such faith in the UN is a luxury that only armchair strategists can afford.

Mr Blair says, rightly, that he will study the letter and reply in due course. But the diplomats' parting shot is to advise Mr Blair that "there is no case for supporting policies that are doomed to failure". Does this mean that Britain should follow Spain and leave the Americans in the lurch? The Prime Minister should treat such an indecent proposal with contempt. Rather, he should give our troops the tools to finish the job.

 

BLAIR SHOULD LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS

Blair should listen to the experts
Lead article
Financial Times
April 28, 2004

In possibly the most stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its foreign policy establishment, 52 former ambassadors and international officials have written to Tony Blair telling him he is damaging UK (and western) interests by backing George W. Bush's misguided policies in the Middle East. It would be comforting to imagine that their comments will be heeded.

The signatories to the letter include many distinguished and experienced public servants. They extend beyond the "usual suspects" of well-known Arabists, and there is every indication that many more serving and retired diplomats, as well as army officers, harbour the same misgivings.

In any case, the notion that so-called Arabists - expert in the language, culture and politics of Arab countries - should be excluded from policy because of their alleged predilection to "go native" should be discredited by the way the Pentagon, which shut out anyone with actual knowledge of Iraq, has serially bungled the occupation.

The organisers of this most undiplomatic démarche are, moreover, Atlanticists. Yet, in essence, what they are telling Mr Blair is: if you really have influence with the Bush administration, now is the time to use it. If that proves "unacceptable or unwelcome" in Washington, they write, "there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure".

The diplomats were shocked into action not just by gathering signs of implosion in Iraq but by US backing for the decision of Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, to keep most Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank - and Mr Blair's endorsement of this "one-sided and illegal" new policy. Downing Street insists it has not abandoned the principle of a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and the internationally underwritten "roadmap" to it. But Mr Sharon's strategy tramples on several United Nations Security Council resolutions, and Washington and London's support for it has inflamed Arab opinion to the point where it sees Palestine and Iraq as two fronts in a war of resistance against the west - the optimal outcome for the fanatics who follow Osama bin Laden.

In Iraq itself, the letter says, the indiscriminate use of force and heavy weapons "have built up rather than isolated the opposition", while there "was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement". The critique is trenchant and almost wholly accurate.

Detractors say the diplomats propose no alternative. But the problem is that the mishandling of Iraq (and Israel-Palestine) has gradually closed off any plausible path forward. What this letter warns is that this is an accelerating downward spiral with no brake - and that Britain's duty as an ally is to use such influence as it has in Washington as "a matter of the highest urgency". Though the letter does not say it, it is hard to see how that meagre influence would not augment, were London to co-ordinate its position more closely with its European partners.

 

DIPLOMATIC DIVIDE

Diplomatic divide
Lead Editorial
The Guardian
April 28, 2004

There are three big things to say about the robustly critical open letter to Tony Blair on Middle East policy from 52 former British diplomats published yesterday. The first is that its publication is a genuinely significant event. The word "unprecedented" is overused and has been much in evidence in the last 24 hours. In this case, though, its use is wholly justified. Attempts to liken the diplomats' letter to the open attack against Margaret Thatcher's policies signed by 364 economists in 1980 are wide of the mark. Economists are forever promoting their views in public.

Diplomats - even retired ones - are not. Discretion is implanted in their DNA from an early age. In extreme circumstances, they may send an internal note or, rarer still, ask for a private meeting. They do not do open letters to prime ministers. And they certainly do not do open letters using words like "dismay", "naive", "illegal" and "doomed" - and publish them in the press. That is a breach of the code. It signals the fact that this is an exceptional event that cannot be brushed aside or easily forgotten.

The second big thing is nevertheless to inject a note of contextual caution. Feelings are inevitably and rightly high about Israel-Palestine, about the crisis in Iraq, and about the prime minister's support for the US. But the diplomats do not speak for the whole of the foreign service - much of which is at least as strongly Atlanticist as Mr Blair- and nor are their views holy writ. Ask yourself how often the whole Westminster village embraces the views of the Foreign Office mandarinate with enthusiasm? Certainly not over the European Union, that is for sure. If 52 retired diplomats had published a letter calling for the adoption of the EU constitution, it is a fair bet that they would not get the lead slot on the BBC News, the splash in the Daily Telegraph or be rewarded with an approving leader in the Daily Mail. It is not impossible that they would find themselves denounced as an arrogant elite who have gone native and whose time has passed.

But the main thing to say about the letter is that the diplomats are overwhelmingly right. The three large points that they make are, first, that the US government has unilaterally committed itself to a one-sided policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict; second, that the US is now paying the price for having no effective post-invasion plan for Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; and, third, that Britain has not exerted its influence to redress these dangerous policies.

The breaking-point for the organisers of the letter appears to have been the joint press conference given by George Bush and Mr Blair in the White House Rose Garden on April 16. This was a genuinely shocking event. Mr Blair made no effort either implicitly or explicitly to distance Britain in any way from the president's unilateral endorsement of the Sharon withdrawal plan on April 14. Nor did he give any hint of having qualms, or even anything independent to say, about US tactics and priorities in the increasingly bloody battles in Iraq. On the contrary. Mr Blair appeared to give his backing to both strategies. It was a disastrously complacent performance and it is not surprising that it outraged the diplomats, as it also outraged so many others.

Ever since then, it is true, Mr Blair and his officials have tried to repair the initial damage. They have portrayed the Sharon plan as an opportunity to return to the Middle East road-map, where all issues will be part of the final status negotiations. And they have emphasised that the Bush administration is working with the United Nations representative Lakhdar Brahimi in Iraq. But these are fig leaf efforts. The attempt to reconcile mainstream opinion in this country with the undisguised unilateralism of the underlying US positions is, as the diplomats said, naive and probably doomed.

 

BACKLASH BEGINS AGAINST "CAMEL CORPS" PLOTTERS

Backlash begins against 'camel corps' plotters
By Anne Penketh Diplomatic Editor
The Independent
April 28, 2004

It is known as the "school for spies". Britain's foremost Arabists have passed through the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (Mecas) since the British Government opened the language school in Shemlan, outside Beirut, in 1947.

So have some of Britain's best-known spies, among them Sir David Spedding, a former head of MI6, and the traitors Kim Philby and George Blake.

It emerged yesterday that many of the 52 signatories of the searing letter criticising Tony Blair's Middle East policies are also alumni of the centre, who have become known as the "camel corps" because of their pro-Arab views.

"The 'camel corps' were obviously a factor," one recently retired ambassador said yesterday. "Many of my colleagues must be thoroughly frustrated."

Sir Marrack Goulding, the former United Nations head of peace-keeping who was among the prime movers behind the letter, graduated from Mecas after joining the diplomatic service in 1959. The Lebanon centre was closed in 1974.

Yesterday, he denied suggestions that the group was acting on behalf of diplomats still working for the Foreign Office and who cannot speak out. "Nobody came from the Foreign Office," Sir Marrack told The Independent. "It was spontaneous and generated by Tony Blair's visit to Washington."

The letter's signatories explain that the trigger for their action was the Rose Garden appearance by Mr Blair on 16 April when he stood at Mr Bush's side and appeared to tear up decades of internationally agreed Middle East policy.

"All of us who signed the letter had been concerned over the last year or so that Middle Eastern expertise in the Foreign Office had been ignored by No 10," one of the letter's authors said.

"What triggered it this week is not so much that we feel the Iraq adventure is a failed enterprise but we were horrified to see the Prime Minister next to Bush in the Rose Garden tearing up [UN resolutions] 242 and 338 and the whole diplomatic and political framework for Palestinian-Israel peace.

"This broke the camel's back," said the diplomat, only half-jokingly. "It made us all feel that we had to take action."

It appears that within the "camel corps", the group coalesced around former diplomats with official or unofficial links to Oxford - St Antony's College in particular - including Sir Marrack, Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, and Sir Bryan Cartledge, a former envoy to Moscow. But some of their former colleagues yesterday questioned the fact that they failed to muster signatures from ambassadors who had served in prestigious posts such as Washington, Paris or Nato.

"Look at the list - you can't find any grade-one ambassador who has retired in the past 10 years who is on that list," said one former envoy who was not contacted by the group.

Recently retired ambassadors, including the former UN ambassador Sir John Weston, are known to have reservations about the Iraq war and on the inadequacy of Britain's position on the Middle East peace process, but are critical of the letter writers' tactics. "I don't personally think that cohorts of retired diplomats engaging in the politics of gesticulation on a major issue of this kind is going to be helpful," said one.

A Foreign Office insider also noted, after running through the list of the letter's signatories, that "a lot of figures are marginal". The official said that "there is a problem with Arabism in the Foreign Office" and suggested it was time to look at the intractable problem of Middle East peace with a fresh eye. "God knows, you can be critical of Sharon, but in 37 years of diplomacy, what has been achieved?"

As the backlash intensified, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, accused the group of undermining Britain's relations with the US. "It is very important for us to try to work with the United States and not to have a polarisation that would weaken our influence and weaken the influence of Europe," he said in an interview on BBC2.

Asked why more prominent diplomats were not among the signatories, one of the group said that a "large number" of people were sent the first draft, but later felt that they did not want to sign. Some diplomats who had retired recently were hesitant because "this is a policy they had been defending in recent months".


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.