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Diplomatic divide

Wednesday April 28, 2004
The Guardian

There are three big things to say about the robustly critical open letter to Tony Blair on Middle East policy from 52 former British diplomats published yesterday. The first is that its publication is a genuinely significant event. The word "unprecedented" is overused and has been much in evidence in the last 24 hours. In this case, though, its use is wholly justified. Attempts to liken the diplomats' letter to the open attack against Margaret Thatcher's policies signed by 364 economists in 1980 are wide of the mark. Economists are forever promoting their views in public.

Diplomats - even retired ones - are not. Discretion is implanted in their DNA from an early age. In extreme circumstances, they may send an internal note or, rarer still, ask for a private meeting. They do not do open letters to prime ministers. And they certainly do not do open letters using words like "dismay", "naive", "illegal" and "doomed" - and publish them in the press. That is a breach of the code. It signals the fact that this is an exceptional event that cannot be brushed aside or easily forgotten.

The second big thing is nevertheless to inject a note of contextual caution. Feelings are inevitably and rightly high about Israel-Palestine, about the crisis in Iraq, and about the prime minister's support for the US. But the diplomats do not speak for the whole of the foreign service - much of which is at least as strongly Atlanticist as Mr Blair- and nor are their views holy writ. Ask yourself how often the whole Westminster village embraces the views of the Foreign Office mandarinate with enthusiasm? Certainly not over the European Union, that is for sure. If 52 retired diplomats had published a letter calling for the adoption of the EU constitution, it is a fair bet that they would not get the lead slot on the BBC News, the splash in the Daily Telegraph or be rewarded with an approving leader in the Daily Mail. It is not impossible that they would find themselves denounced as an arrogant elite who have gone native and whose time has passed.

But the main thing to say about the letter is that the diplomats are overwhelmingly right. The three large points that they make are, first, that the US government has unilaterally committed itself to a one-sided policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict; second, that the US is now paying the price for having no effective post-invasion plan for Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; and, third, that Britain has not exerted its influence to redress these dangerous policies.

The breaking-point for the organisers of the letter appears to have been the joint press conference given by George Bush and Mr Blair in the White House Rose Garden on April 16. This was a genuinely shocking event. Mr Blair made no effort either implicitly or explicitly to distance Britain in any way from the president's unilateral endorsement of the Sharon withdrawal plan on April 14. Nor did he give any hint of having qualms, or even anything independent to say, about US tactics and priorities in the increasingly bloody battles in Iraq. On the contrary. Mr Blair appeared to give his backing to both strategies. It was a disastrously complacent performance and it is not surprising that it outraged the diplomats, as it also outraged so many others.

Ever since then, it is true, Mr Blair and his officials have tried to repair the initial damage. They have portrayed the Sharon plan as an opportunity to return to the Middle East road-map, where all issues will be part of the final status negotiations. And they have emphasised that the Bush administration is working with the United Nations representative Lakhdar Brahimi in Iraq. But these are fig leaf efforts. The attempt to reconcile mainstream opinion in this country with the undisguised unilateralism of the underlying US positions is, as the diplomats said, naive and probably doomed.