The Financial Times has what I consider to be an important editorial this morning. It concerns a letter 52 former ambassadors and international officials have written to Tony Blair telling him he is damaging UK (and western) interests by backing George W. Bush’s misguided policies in the Middle East. The FT describes this as “the most stinging rebuke ever to a British government by its foreign policy establishment” and comments wryly: “It would be comforting to imagine that their comments will be heeded.”
The FT does not mince it’s words:
“In any case, the notion that so-called Arabists – expert in the language, culture and politics of Arab countries – should be excluded from policy because of their alleged predilection to “go native” should be discredited by the way the Pentagon, which shut out anyone with actual knowledge of Iraq, has serially bungled the occupation“.
The FT is hardly a radical rag, given to frequent rants, so this broadside seems deeply significant.
This development looks very important indeed to me in the context of UK politics. It reminds me of only a few other occasions, all from the Thatcher era, and in conjunction really marking a turning point. The first was the when the Church of England came out openly criticising the apparent lack of concern for the plight of the poor. The second was when the Oxford Dons refused to give her an honorary degree, and, now I come to think of it, there was a third: when the Queen openly sided with the black African Commonwealth states against Ms Thatchers apparent soft-peddling on South African racism.
In this context the words of warning coming from the British diplomatic corps seem to me to mark a watershed. Given the nature of UK society (which is of course, very, very different from the US) Blair will turn a deaf ear to this at his peril.
The organisers of this most undiplomatic d?marche are, moreover, Atlanticists. Yet, in essence, what they are telling Mr Blair is: if you really have influence with the Bush administration, now is the time to use it. If that proves “unacceptable or unwelcome” in Washington, they write, “there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure”.
Looking into the tea leaves if this goes on it is hard to see Blair surviving much beyond the next general election even should he win it. As another article in the Guardian makes plain, even the MOD is far from happy:
the concern about British policies is shared by senior military figures. One defence source, referring to the US military attacks on Falluja and Najaf, told the Guardian: “We do things differently.”
“The British should be saying to the Americans, ‘If we are to be involved then we’ll do it our way,'” echoed Colonel Christopher Langton, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to the holy Shia city of Najaf.
Despite Mr Blair’s comment that “the advice we have is that we have sufficient troops to do the job”, senior officers are drawing up plans to send more troops to Iraq. They are also making it plain that they do not want to operate under US command. “There are severe worries if we operate under the American way of doing things, and getting all the flack, then it will spread to Basra,” a defence source said.
In all of this I am reminded of one of my favourite phrases from Sophocles’ Antigone: “call no man happy until the day they die”. Tony, the golden boy who could have had everything, who could have re-united the UK and restored to the former colonial power some of its long lost sense of self respect and prosperity seems to be coming remarkably near to throwing it all away if you ask me. But then again, no-one really is.