Britain: Former diplomats blast Blair’s support for US Middle East policy

An unprecedented attack on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policy in the Middle East by 52 of the UK’s former senior ambassadors has brought longstanding divisions over the British government’s foreign policy into the open.

An open letter, from what has been described as the “cream of Foreign Office expertise,” castigates the US-led occupation of Iraq as “doomed,” rebukes Blair for endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “one-sided” and “illegal” land grab in the Occupied Territories, and calls for a “fundamental reassessment” of the government’s relations with the Bush administration.

The letter comes at a time when the government is considering sending a further 2,000 troops to Iraq to replace those being withdrawn by the new Spanish government.

Signatories to the letter, which was delivered to the prime minister on Monday, April 26, include Sir Terence Clark, the UK’s ambassador to Iraq from 1985 to 1989; Sir Marrack Goulding, a former diplomat in Kuwait, Libya, Egypt and Lebanon who worked for the United Nations from 1986 to 1993; and Oliver Miles, ambassador to Libya during the takeover of the Libyan embassy in London during 1984 and now a business consultant on the Middle East.

Some prominent signatories have only recently left the Foreign Office, including Francis Cornish, former head of the Foreign Office news department and UK ambassador to Israel from 1998 to 2001, and Richard Muir, ambassador to Kuwait until 2002. The letter also includes diplomats from outside the Middle East.

Moreover, according to Richard Beeston in the Times, the letter’s sentiments are “almost certainly shared by many serving diplomats, including some officials working in the coalition government in Baghdad.”

If so, then it represents a damning repudiation of the British government’s strategy in the Middle East by virtually the entire Foreign Office establishment.

The signatories write that “we ... have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close cooperation with the United States.”

Britain and much of the world, have “waited in vain” on American leadership, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to spiral out of control, the letter adds. Worse still, “the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood.”

This is a reference to the April 14 press conference between Sharon and Bush, where the US ripped up international law to sanction Israeli annexation of around half of the West Bank Palestinian land through the building of a so-called security wall, and overturned the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel.

“Dismay at this backward step” was “heightened,” the signatories continue, when Blair “seemed to endorse it” during his own press conference with Bush just two days later. The prime minister’s “abandonment of principle comes at a time when, rightly or wrongly, we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.”

Within Iraq itself, it is “clear that there was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement. All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case. To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.”

US brutality is inflaming opposition, the letter continues, especially as the “Iraqis killed by coalition forces probably total between ten and fifteen thousand (it is a disgrace that the coalition forces themselves appear to have no estimate), and the number killed in the last month in Fallujah alone is apparently several hundred including many civilian men, women and children.”

The letter concludes that whilst, as Blair argues, the UK has an interest in “exerting real influence” on the US, “as a loyal ally ... we believe that the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency. If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.”

Oliver Miles, who helped coordinate gathering support for the letter, said, “A number of us felt that our opinions on the two subjects, Iraq and the Arab-Israel problem, were pretty widely shared and we felt that we ought to make it public.

“Never has government policy been so controversial. It is an indication of our serious concern that what is probably the biggest such collective group has gone straight to government in this way.

“Our objective is not to damage Blair politically but to strengthen the hand of those who feel as we do.”

Whatever the intent, any criticism of UK foreign policy in the Middle East and Blair’s alliance with Washington must inevitably undermine the prime minister, who has made it his own personal crusade. In the run-up to the US-led war against Iraq, Blair famously insisted that he would not be turned away from pursuing the objectives he felt correct, regardless of the level of disquiet and opposition that it encountered.

It is a measure of how determined he has been in carrying this agenda forward that he has succeeded in alienating whole swathes of the civil service foreign policy apparatus.

There have been indications of discontent within the Foreign Office and more broadly within the intelligence and defence establishment for some time. This was evident during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, the UK’s leading specialist on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, where emails and correspondence revealed conflicts between the government and the Foreign Office and security services over the advisability of signing up to war against Iraq on Bush’s terms.

Times journalist Peter Riddell’s recent book, Hug them close—Blair, Clinton, Bush and the “special relationship,” notes that there was widespread concern throughout much of the Foreign Office and foreign policy think tanks in Britain at Bush’s invocation of a “war on terror” following the September 11 attacks. This centred on the fact that “any campaign against terrorism would be indefinite, and would require intelligence and police operations as much as, if not more than, military action. It should also involve political initiatives to tackle the causes of terrorism, notably the Israeli-Palestine dispute.”

Blair had countered such anxieties by insisting that his alliance with Washington would strengthen Britain, and enable it to assert its own interests more forcefully. Dismissing concerns over the destabilising impact of war for the Middle East, he suggested that US involvement in finding a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict would be a significant payback for backing a preemptive attack on Iraq.

A year ago, Blair appeared triumphant—not only had Saddam Hussein been toppled, and Iraq occupied relatively quickly, but Bush had also apparently given his endorsement to the so-called “road map” agreement drawn up by the quartet of the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia aimed at the eventual creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Twelve months on, Blair’s strategy is in tatters. His alliance with Washington threatens to embroil British military forces in an increasingly bloody confrontation with the Iraqi people, whilst Bush has seen fit to rip up the road map without even a “by your leave” from Blair—the man he still describes as his administration’s “closest friend.”

Small wonder that such longstanding pillars of Britain’s ruling class feel forced to make their objections known so openly and in such a categorical way. By speaking out in this manner they hope to regain some measure of influence over government policy after being all but excluded from decision-making by Blair.

Blair was obviously pushed onto the back foot by the attack, refusing to make any public comment. Privately, government spokesman were said to be briefing the press that the former diplomats were just the “camel corps”, (those based so long in Arab countries that they had “gone native”).

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was also nowhere to be seen. So it fell to a lightweight, Foreign Office Minister Mike O’Brien, to defend the government’s policy.

His reply was a pathetic restatement of the government’s arguments that it can whisper confidences in Bush’s ear, but only so long as it does Washington’s bidding. O’Brien asked for the government’s critics to be realistic and portrayed their response as a “cry of frustration that things are not going as quickly as we would all like.”

“We can influence the US,” he continued, “but we can’t control a superpower. They listen to our quiet diplomacy but they also have their own policy—we influence each other.”

O’Brien insisted that the UK had been successful in encouraging Bush “to become the first US president to call for a Palestinian state independent of Israel and to support the whole road map process.” But he declined to answer whether Bush had consulted Blair when he made the decision to repudiate this position.