Politics & Policy

Undiplomacy

When former diplomats attack.

The front pages of Tuesday’s British newspapers, at least the serious ones, were dominated by news of a “mass attack”–not in Iraq but in London. A letter written by 52 British ex-diplomats castigates Prime Minister Tony Blair for his policies on Iraq and “the Arab-Israel problem,” demanding that the British government use its influence to change U.S. policy.

#ad#From people who spent their careers finding just the right phrase to put an argument “diplomatically,” this is heavy-hitting stuff.

‐”If [our influence in Washington] is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.”

The New York Times, which mentions the story on its front page but carries it inside, describes the letter as a rebuke of British and American policy. Unlike the British newspapers, the Times does not provide any names of the “former ambassadors and senior government officials” who signed. Pity. The identities of the signatories reveal the context of how Britain lost its way in the Middle East.

With few exceptions, the former diplomats are all Arabists who served in the “Camel Corps,” as it is known internally at the British Foreign Office. One of their contemporaries describes them as “a tribe apart, middle- to upper-middle class, Oxbridge, Guardian readers, who ‘went native’ in their postings in the Middle East.” Their style in embassies, this former colleague confided, was “patronizing,” treating the inhabitants as “noble savages who, but for their tribal instincts, could almost be taught to play cricket.”

But President Bush’s acceptance this month that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza could be matched by retaining settlements on the West Bank blew apart this edifice. The presidential statement about the right of return of Palestinians being confined to Palestinian as opposed to Israeli territory doubled the shock.

Out in Bahrain, Mogadishu, or Riyadh, these men (there are only two women signatories, neither of whom served as an ambassador to an Arab country) almost certainly never argued that the right of return was incompatible with the continued existence of the state of Israel, nor that if a country attacks another and loses, it is absurd to claim the winner is legally obliged to withdraw completely.

It is clear that the Bush/Sharon summit in Washington, followed a few days later by the visit of Tony Blair, was the motivating factor for the letter, and not the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The change in Middle East policy and in the reality on the ground has clearly stuck in the signatories’ collective craw. There is no hint of readiness by the signatories to use any of their residual influence to belatedly help change perceptions in their former postings. It is clearly all the fault of President Bush and, as one of the ex-officials said on the BBC last night, “the neo-cons,” which in British dinner-party speak means “the Jews.”

Coincidentally no doubt, today is Israel’s independence day. Perhaps the letter will provide a good subject of conversation over the canapés and wine. At least some of the sentiments in the letter are thought to be shared by current British Foreign Office officials, though it’s said they have a greater sense of realism than their retired colleagues. After all, Britain’s military strength in Iraq is about five percent of Uncle Sam’s.

Meanwhile the great British public still backs Britain’s role in Iraq. British casualties would upset them but they might have a greater sense of realism. The main stories in today’s British tabloid newspapers are about the attempted expulsion of a Muslim cleric and the trial of British Muslims accused of inciting one of their relatives to become a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

–Simon Henderson is a London-based associate for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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