The letter of the 52 Diplomats to Tony Blair

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On 26 April, 52 of us, former ambassadors and high commissioners with a leavening of former senior international civil servants, all now retired from the public service, signed an open letter to the prime minister criticising, in robust but (I hope) courteous language, his and President Bush’s policies in Israel/Palestine and Iraq. None of us had any idea that our message would make such an extraordinary impact, not only in Britain but also in the United States and just about everywhere else in the world where people watch television and read newspapers.  Quite apart from the world-wide media coverage, all 52 of us have been inundated with messages from all five continents, still coming in by fax, post and (especially) e-mail, all, almost without exception, strongly supportive of what we wrote.  Messages have rolled in from old friends and former colleagues and from complete strangers, an especially surprising phenomenon when none of our postal or e-mail addresses were published with our names in the press.  Some of the 52 have even been accosted by strangers in the street, recognising them from television interviews, and wanting to thank us for airing views that are evidently very widely shared but not often put into the public domain in this coherent shape, backed by the very considerable knowledge and experience of 52 former senior diplomats, and brought to the attention of our political leaders in a way that makes it difficult to ignore them or brush them aside. 

Inevitably not all the reaction, anyway in the British media, has been favourable.  There have been hostile responses to the letter of varying degrees of persuasiveness and propriety, mostly in the Murdoch press and the Telegraph, Daily and Sunday.  One long article published extensive details of some of the (named) signatories’ private financial affairs — mostly rather modest earnings from consultancies, directorships, and so on — with the blatant innuendo that our real motives for writing as we did were mercenary, a vicious but wholly unconvincing piece of smear journalism.  Another piece described us collectively as “ Pall Mall ponces” and delivered personal attacks on two of the signatories by name, sneering at their selected past statements, quite out of context and with the benefit of hindsight, a form of attack which few journalists would choose to have used against them.  Another article, by a well known historian, launched a generalised attack on, apparently, all Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats, past and present (“those brains at the Foreign Office always get it wrong”), garnished with ludicrous generalisations (“Whenever a collective view has developed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office it has been only a matter of time – and usually not long, either – before it has been proved spectacularly wrong”) and irrelevant denunciations of long dead British diplomats going back to the middle of the 19th century.  The article condemned us for anti-Israeli prejudice on the grounds that  ‘the reference in their letter to "one-sided and illegal" actions which "cost yet more blood", for example, is not to Palestinian suicide-bombers but to the policies of President Bush and Ariel Sharon.’   In fact our letter had referred to "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" [my emphasis]:  the omission of "Israeli and Palestinian" from that quotation, with nothing to indicate an omission, deliberately distorted the true sense of what we had written by doctoring the quotation, and concealing the surgery.  Nothing more needs to be said of a historian who engages in such practices.
A more insidious (because more superficially persuasive) criticism was made in a letter to The Times from a former diplomat, not one of the 52, recalling how the task of the negotiators of the agreement to hand over Hong Kong had been made more difficult by the public interventions of another eminent retired ambassador (not named but easily identified, and not one of the 52) and inferring from this experience that retired public servants should not make their views known publicly, or seek to influence or criticise government policies, for fear of complicating the work of their successors still in harness – an argument whose logical conclusion would be to stifle all public debate on government policies, however disastrous.  The suggestion that civil servants and diplomats are entitled to do their work without the tiresome distractions of public debate and criticism is one that seems unlikely to command widespread support.
The Guardian’s original list of signatories, and the diplomatic posts they had headed, named only eight of the 52, of whom seven were Arabists, with an obvious implication that a similar proportion of the 52 were also Arabists.  This prompted a polite complaint to the Guardian, which made amends by publishing the full list on the following day (although the list is only selectively accurate, Guardian-style) and sending the complainant a note of fairly handsome apology.  For a somewhat more accurate list, click here.
It’s debatable, and has been widely debated, whether some or all of the 52 should put out some sort of rebuttal of the principal (and more respectable) published criticisms of our letter.  I and others have regretfully concluded that a rebuttal, however fully justified, would probably do more harm than good, not least by prompting another flood of spite and invective, and perhaps thereby reducing the impact of the points made in the original letter, on which (it seems to me) not a glove has so far been laid by its critics.  There is also the problem that at the time of writing this (9 May 2004), we still await the promised reply from Mr Blair, and it might be thought premature or even imprudent to reply to our critics before the person to whom the letter was addressed has favoured us with his own reply to it. 
But  that need not inhibit an individual signatory of the letter from making available via his own website a summary of the answers to the more rational criticisms that have been made in the press.  There is no need to reply to the personal smears or to the airy generalisations about the universal wrong-headedness of all British diplomats in all periods, nor to the thought-provoking allegation in one of the Murdoch newspapers that the 52 hold these opinions because they have "sand up their a**** ".   But it may be worth making just four points in reply to somewhat more reputable criticisms.  In offering these, I stress that I am speaking (or writing) purely for myself and that my views don’t necessarily represent those of the other 51, although I would be surprised if any of them would strongly dissent. 
1.  The criticism that the original letter failed to propose alternatives to current policies is baseless.  The letter clearly advocated —

  • (on Israel/Palestine) a return to multilateral negotiations in place of unilateral declarations, and to the principles underlying the road map and indeed UN Security Council Resolution 242, of November 1967, which remain the only credible basis for agreement on an eventual settlement;  and 
  • (on Iraq) the early transfer to the UN of responsibility for overseeing the return of full sovereignty to the Iraqis, and if the US is unwilling to adopt that course, British disengagement from current American policies on the grounds that they cannot succeed or be defended.  

It calls for a remarkable degree of intellectual self-confidence to argue, as some have done, that the letter of the 52 is unrealistic in proposing that if London can’t persuade Washington to modify the Coalition’s policies in such a way as to give them a reasonable prospect of winning international approval, or at any rate respectability, and of achieving their objectives, Britain should disengage from existing policies when these plainly have no serious prospect of either, and were already (to quote our letter) "doomed to failure" even before the explosion into the world’s consciousness of the bombshell revelations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners by some American and (apparently) British soldiers and interrogators.

2.  The attribution of the views in the letter to pro-Arab prejudice on the part of FCO Arabists, patronisingly dismissed in some of the media as the FCO Camel Corps, is absurd, since (a) a substantial number of the signatories (including the present writer) are not Arabists, (b) the letter itself was even-handed as between Palestinians and Israelis (if it had not been so, I for one would not have been able to sign it), and (c) the letter has attracted extraordinary support from people all over the world, so many that it would be ridiculous to label them all as prejudiced Arabists.   I am by no means alone among the 52 in having received literally dozens of letters and e-mails from a wide spread of countries and individuals scattered all over the world, from friends, former colleagues and perfect strangers, in strong support and indeed gratitude to us for having articulated publicly views that are strongly held by vast numbers of people in every continent.  I haven’t had a single message expressing dissent. This outpouring of support is the more remarkable for the fact that to the best of my knowledge, no newspaper or other media outlet has published the postal or e-mail address or fax or telephone number of any single one of the 52 signatories of the letter.  No doubt a handful of these supporters are anti-Semitic bigots; even fewer may be romantic idealisers of the desert Arabs, with The Seven Pillars of Wisdom beside their beds or in their saddle-bags.  But to dismiss the opinions of all those who have come forward in support on the grounds that they are pro-Arab partisans is obviously ridiculous.  What’s more, 50 or more senior American ex-diplomats have issued their own letter, addressed to Mr Bush, strongly endorsing the letter of their 52 British opposite numbers, and it seems improbable to the point of absurdity that all these too are pro-Arab romantics, still less anti-Israel bigots.

3.  The fact that many more than 52 former heads of mission did not sign the letter doesn’t mean, as asserted by one eminent former colleague in a broadsheet article, that more (and more senior) ex-diplomats support current policies than dissent from them.  The number and identity of the signatories was necessarily limited by the co-ordinator’s ability to contact former colleagues in the time available before the text became out of date with the rush of events.  Numerous other former ambassadors and high commissioners have told signatories of the letter that if they had known of the drafting of the letter and had been given the opportunity to sign it, they would have done so.  These easily outnumber those who have told us, or have stated in the media, that they were invited to sign but refused to do so, or would have refused if invited.  Unfortunately there is no mechanism for throwing open the lists for signature by all former senior British diplomats of a text which would not become hopelessly out of date long before all those who agreed with it had registered their signatures.  A few ex-diplomats, otherwise well qualified to sign, decided not to do so because of their personal involvement in recent middle east policy-making, or because they preferred to make their views known in a different and more exalted forum, or because they had held positions at the very peak of the Diplomatic Service which they felt made it inappropriate for them to associate themselves with an expression of discontent with current government policy.
4.  The argument that former public servants should refrain from making their views public, for fear of making more difficult the task of their successors in executing ill-judged policies, is plainly mistaken. It would be a paradoxical rule that permitted all contributions by private citizens to discussion of national policy issues — except from those who are exceptionally well qualified, by their experience of the area concerned or of international affairs and diplomacy generally, to say something worth listening to. 

I can claim no credit for the wording of the letter of the 52:  I returned from a holiday in Ireland only just in time to sign a text which was by then in its final form.  I am therefore free to say that I thought it well judged, skilfully drafted and even-handed.  The fact that so many former diplomats whose personal political views cover a wide spectrum from left to right felt able to sign it without reservation testifies to the letter’s essential good sense and moderation, even though some of its points were forcefully expressed.  It has deservedly made an impact well beyond the expectations of any of its signatories.
Recent revelations of the extreme abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American and (probably) British soldiers and interrogators have already changed radically, and for the worse, the situation as it was in late April when the 52 wrote their letter.  This development clearly reinforces the thrust and urgency of what we said.  No plausible counter-arguments have so far been advanced against our case for an immediate review with the Americans of where we are going and how best to rescue the Coalition (and the Iraqis) from the gathering disaster.  The proverbial advice to those who find themselves in a hole, that the first thing to do is to stop digging, has never been more apposite.  Perhaps the disastrous setback of the issue of the abuse of prisoners may provide a fig-leaf to cover up an otherwise shaming decision to sound retreat from a position we should never have allowed ourselves to occupy.

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