A failure of politicians (so what’s new)

In April 2004 a group of very senior diplomats wrote to then-PM Tony Blair regarding the catastrophic US-UK adventures in the Middle East. I post it again now since it seems to me that, 11 years on, things have turned out pretty much as predicted, i.e. crap.

Further, no lessons were learned, as the adventure in Libya plainly shows, and as Miliband was right to point out.

“In Libya, Labour supported military action to avoid the slaughter Gaddafi threatened in Benghazi. But since the action, the failure of post-conflict planning has become obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.

“What we have seen in Libya is that when tensions over power and resource began to emerge, they simply reinforced deep-seated ideological and ethnic fault lines in the country, meaning the hopes of the revolutionary uprisings quickly began to unravel.

“The tragedy is that this could have been anticipated. It should have been avoided. And Britain could have played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing behind the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle.”

His words would have had more effect, though, had he conceded New Labour’s own appalling complacency and arrogance in ‘masterminding’ the Iraq fiasco.

Here is the diplomats’ letter.

Dear Prime Minister:

We the undersigned, former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States. Following the press conference in Washington at which you and President Bush restated these policies, we feel the time has come to make our anxieties public, in the hope that they will be addressed in Parliament and will lead to a fundamental reassessment.

The decision by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN to launch a “road-map” for the settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict raised hopes that the major powers would at last make a determined and collective effort to resolve a problem which, more than any other, has for decades poisoned relations between the West and the Islamic and Arab worlds. The legal and political principles on which such a settlement would be based were well-established: President Clinton had grappled with the problem during his presidency; the ingredients needed for a settlement were well-understood and informal agreements on several of them had already been achieved. But the hopes were ill-founded. Nothing effective has been done either to move the negotiations forward or to curb the violence. Britain and the other sponsors of the “road-map” merely waited on American leadership, but waited in vain.

Worse was to come. After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced.

This 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. [my emphasis]

The conduct of the war in Iraq has made it 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. Policy must take account of the nature and history of Iraq, the most complex country in the region. However much Iraqis may yearn for a democratic society, the belief that one could now be created by the coalition is naive. This is the view of virtually all independent specialists on the region, both in Britain and in America. We are glad to note that you and the President have welcomed the proposals outlined by Lakhdar Brahimi. We must be ready to provide what support he requests, and to give authority to the United Nations to work with the Iraqis themselves, including those who are now actively resisting the occupation, to clear up the mess.

The military actions of the coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theatre itself, not by criteria remote from them. It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders. Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Fallujah, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition. 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. Phrases such as “We mourn each loss of life. We salute them, and their families for their bravery and their sacrifice”, apparently referring only to those who have died on the coalition side, are not well judged to moderate the passions these killings arouse.

We share your view that the British Government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related issues, and in exerting real influence 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.

Yours faithfully,

Sir Brian Barder, former high commissioner, Australia; Paul Bergne, former diplomat; Sir John Birch, former ambassador, Hungary; Sir David Blatherwick, former ambassador, Ireland; Graham Hugh Boyce, former ambassador, Egypt; Sir Julian Bullard, former ambassador, Bonn; Juliet Campbell, former ambassador, Luxemburg; Sir Bryan Cartledge, former ambassador, Soviet Union; Terence Clark, former 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, former ambassador, Morocco; Dick Fyjis-Walker, ex-chairman, Commonwealth Institute; Marrack Goulding, former head of United Nations Peacekeeping; John Graham, former Nato ambassador, Iraq; Andrew Green, former ambassador, Syria; Victor Henderson, former ambassador, Yemen; Peter Hinchcliffe, former 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, former ambassador, Cuba; Sir Christopher MacRae, former ambassador, Chad; Oliver Miles, diplomatic service in Middle East; Martin Morland, former ambassador, Burma; Sir Keith Morris, former ambassador, Colombia; Sir Richard Muir, former ambassador, Kuwait; Sir Alan Munro, former ambassador, Saudi Arabia; Stephen Nash, ambassador, Latvia; Robin O’Neill, former ambassador, Austria; Andrew Palmer, former ambassador, Vatican; Bill Quantrill, former ambassador, Cameroon; David Ratford, former ambassador, Norway; Tom Richardson, former UK deputy ambassador, UN; Andrew Stuart, former ambassador, Finland; Michael Weir, former ambassador, Cairo; Alan White, former ambassador, Chile; Hugh Tunnell, former ambassador, Bahrain; Charles Treadwell, former ambassador, UAE; Sir Crispin Tickell, former UN Ambassador; Derek Tonkin, former ambassador, Thailand; David Tatham, former governor, Falkland Islands; Harold “Hooky” Walker, former ambassador, Iraq; Jeremy Varcoe, former ambassador, Somalia.

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