The Prime Minister has been given a warning that he must not ignore

27 April 2004

To date, Tony Blair has taken little heed of the widespread criticism of his adventurism in the Middle East. But he would do well to listen when distinguished former British diplomats write an open letter telling him either to start influencing, or stop backing, the disastrous Middle Eastern policy of the United States.

In an action which is without precedent for the foreign policy establishment, 52 former ambassadors, high commissioners and governors, have delivered an unequivocal message that should leave the Prime Minister squirming. This is the political equivalent of being slow handclapped by the Womens' Institute, only more grave. Retired British ambassadors, do not, as a rule, have a political axe to grind or an agenda to promote - and, in all probability, are reflecting the view of many serving diplomats.

Of course, the mandarins of the Foreign Office have always stood accused of being overly influenced by the "Arabist" tendency. But these are figures who know intimately the reality on the ground - some of the signatories have served in Iraq or Israel - and who are, usually, reticent about levelling such fierce public criticism at the political masters. So there is only one conclusion to draw from this broadside: it is driven by dismay and alarm at the damage done to British interests around the world.

Mr Blair has ignored the dissent that has convulsed his own party, and he has brushed aside his critics in the media. He would, however, be foolish to ignore these diplomats. Perhaps the most salient word in their letter is "influence": the appeal to Mr Blair to either wield some, or cut his losses and perform a major rethink. This is a particularly sensitive point for a Prime Minister who likes to see himself as an international statesman, because it harks back to the mantra we heard constantly from Downing Street in the run up to war. We were told then that Mr Blair's strategy was premised on his unique ability to influence Mr Bush, in particular to secure greater engagement on the Israel/Palestine question.

The letter rightly condemns Mr Blair for his spineless endorsement of President Bush's betrayal of the international community's search for a viable road-map to settle the future of Israel/Palestine. The ex-ambassadors go on to tie together this "abandonment of principle" with what is happening in Iraq. They warn of the consequences of abandoning the road-map "at a time when rightly or wrongly we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation of Iraq".

The diplomats' intervention comes against the backdrop of one of the most violent periods of the post-Saddam occupation, during which the Prime Minister's own statements suggest he has learned little from developments. He speaks of the Iraqi resistance as terrorists, fanatics or foreigners. As the former ambassadors point out, this is "neither convincing nor helpful". They urge him bluntly to give authority to the UN "to clear up the mess".

As the Prime Minister, we hope, mulls the contents of this rebuke, he must decide whether to send more troops to Iraq to fill the gap left by the Spanish, whose withdrawal of 1,400 soldiers is imminent. Even those who despair at the way events have unfolded will, with a heavy heart, recognise that there is little choice but to reinforce troop numbers. We have an obligation both to protect our existing forces, and the occupied civilian population. There is, sadly, no real alternative to mission creep.

But this raises new dilemmas. The US wants British troops to switch to operating in more hazardous areas north of their Basra base, possibly even in Baghdad. But can the soft-beret approach adopted by the British in the south east of Iraq really be maintained in the hothouses of Najaf, Fallujah, or Baghdad? Still there is, as the diplomats point out, no real exit strategy nor any political goals that look achievable. It is, as they correctly say, a policy doomed to failure. And Mr Blair cannot say he has not been warned.