The diplomats are right: Blair has been short-changed by the Bush administration

It shows how far we have slid into confrontation with the Islamic world that 'Arabist' should now be a term of abuse

Robin Cook

28 April 2004

Even Roget's Thesaurus would be hard pressed to come up with words that do justice to yesterday's defiance by professional diplomats. Unprecedented would be accurate but does not capture the dramatic character of their mutiny. Remember these are people who've spent their entire careers working under a code of discretion which valued secrecy, viewed publicity with distaste and made understatement a habit. It is eloquent testimony to their frustration with current policy that they felt driven to go public. By the standards of diplomatic communiqués their statement is off the Richter scale.

Nor is it conceivable that agreement on a common text could have been reached among former diplomats without widespread sympathy for their views among the ambassadors who have replaced them. The Foreign Office is unusual in the modern world in that it is a lifetime choice and, as a result, members of the diplomatic service know each other well because they have spent decades working together.

Even when retired they dine and drink with each other and with their successors. And they talk. I do not believe so many retired diplomats could have been assembled for such a public stand if they had suspected it would be unwelcome to friends and colleagues who were still serving.

It was depressing to see government loyalists paraded through the studios dismissing the impressive list of names as Foreign Office "Arabists". It is another sign of how far we have slid into confrontation with the Islamic world that "Arabist" should now be a term of abuse. In any case the epithet does not even begin to do justice to the breadth and seniority of the names beneath the statement, which include former ambassadors to New York, Russia, Germany, Australia and, yes, Israel also. Anyone who chooses to dismiss their message is also rejecting the collective view of diplomats who have represented Britain in five continents.

But it is true that the list of signatories is rich in experience of the Middle East region and specifically includes two former ambassadors to Iraq itself. In a rational world their first-hand knowledge of the region would be respected as a source of authority and not a cause of suspicion.

Which brings us to the fundamental source of their breach with Downing Street. Britain now finds itself yoked to a White House approach to the Middle Eastern region that is not the product of any knowledge of its complexity or understanding of its culture, but the result of the simplistic and fundamentalist ideology of the Neo-Conservatives who influence Bush. Both the Middle East and UK are victims of the faith-based foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration.

One of the more positive results of the Bush presidency is that it has provoked a spate of books from former members of his administration spelling out just how ghastly life was on the inside. It is only necessary to glance through those books to understand how hopelessly romantic it ever was for No. 10 to imagine that they could fundamentally influence an administration in the grip of such magnificent obsessions.

Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary, reports that Bush summed up an early discussion on economic policy with the alarmingly irrational line: "Until we get rid of Saddam Hussein, we won't get rid of economic uncertainty." He also reveals that, despite the protests of Colin Powell, the decision to "tilt back towards Israel" was taken at the very first meeting of the National Security Council.

Tony Blair's mistake was to imagine he could buy influence over Bush's foreign policy. The tragedy for our Prime Minister is that he was dealing with a US administration driven by a belief that unilateralism is a virtue and dependency on allies is a weakness. The inevitable consequence is that he has been unable to demonstrate any significant influence over the White House determination to invade Iraq, its conduct of the subsequent occupation, or its handling of the Middle East peace process. He has though been conscripted as an apologist for policies over which he has had no discernable influence.

It appears to have been Bush's betrayal of our common position on the peace process that propelled the diplomatic corps in exile into taking their stand. By endorsing in public Ariel Sharon's demands for any final settlement, President Bush walked away from four decades of effort by US and British diplomats, including many on this week's list, to act as honest brokers for a negotiated settlement. His private exchanges appear to have been even more alarming if we are to believe Ariel Sharon's claim that he is no longer bound by his pledge to the US President not to kill Yasser Arafat. If this is true, it is all the more extraordinary that President Bush then strolled out into the Rose Garden and gave Ariel Sharon all he had asked for.

Downing Street now finds itself in a bind of its own making. They cannot publicly dissent from President Bush's policies without advertising they have been unable to influence him and thereby undermine the whole case for joining his war on Iraq. As a result they have taken refuge in denial, and claim that there is no real difference between what Bush said when he endorsed Ariel Sharon's proposals and what he said when he agreed with Tony Blair on the road-map in which these same proposals were supposed to be negotiated in the final phase. This imaginative interpretation has failed to convince rebel diplomats and I suspect would also be unconvincing to Ariel Sharon whose objective in going Washington was to derail the road-map.

There was at least a balance of sorts in Tony Blair's position when he went to war. He recognised that an invasion without UN authority would be controversial to Arab opinion, but he offered the promise that it would pave the way for pressure on Israel to make progress on the road-map. A year later he finds that Bush expects him to step up the British units for an occupation of Iraq more violent than either of them had anticipated and also to swallow support rather than pressure for Israel in the peace process.

Blair was right to try to influence Bush and correct to recognise the trade off between being given private access in return for public support. The mistake was not in making the attempt, but in refusing to admit that President Bush was not listening. Our Prime Minister has been short-changed in the trade off, and Britain is in danger of being damaged by a special relationship which under Bush has become a one way street.

America will still command respect and get its way because it is a hyperpower. The American people themselves may sensibly make it easier to do so by putting in a new president who can make a fresh start. But Britain is no superpower. We need partners, allies and goodwill to deliver on our interests round the world. The real warning in the statement from our retired diplomats is that we cannot expect goodwill from the rest of the world if we stick too close to a US president who is too fond of confrontation with his enemies and too little interested in listening to his allies.