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Trouble at the FCOJonathan Steele
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Vol. 38 No. 15 · 28 July 2016

Trouble at the FCO

Jonathan Steele

1094 words

‘Despite​ explicit warnings,’ Chilcot said, introducing his report, ‘the consequences of the invasion were underestimated.’ A good deal of the blame for this has to be laid at the door of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Chilcot listed four possible consequences that many people had identified before the war was launched: the risk of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and increased al-Qaida activity. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, did warn the government that al-Qaida would win new recruits, in Britain as well as the Middle East, if the invasion went ahead. The other three predictions were discussed by academic experts, but seem barely to have registered on the Whitehall radar. The Foreign Office never produced a reliable forecast of the likely aftermath of the war, and it failed to predict the religious and sectarian tensions that came to bedevil post-Saddam politics.

The Whitehall papers and internal memos disclosed by Chilcot contain a rag-bag of vague and sometimes contradictory assessments. A long paper called ‘Scenarios for the Future of Iraq after Saddam’, prepared by the FCO’s Directorate for Strategy and Innovation in September 2002, predicted that the ‘situation will almost certainly be messy and unstable’. It correctly stated that if Saddam fell ‘tribal, regional and religious differences would probably come to the fore’ but then, despite the fact that Shias make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, it assessed that Sunnis would keep hold of the political leadership. Edward Chaplin, the FCO’s director for the Middle East, told the inquiry that the FCO’s information on Iraq was ‘patchy’ because the UK had had no embassy in Baghdad since the Gulf War; diplomats from the UK embassy in Amman made occasional short trips to Baghdad, but that was as far as it went. In January 2002, a junior official returned from Baghdad and reported that Iraqi Christians were worried about what would happen if the regime fell, but then concluded: ‘Concerns about an Arab or Islamic backlash against a large Western presence seem unfounded.’

The nearest the FCO ever got to foreseeing that there would be armed resistance to a US/UK occupation was a paper prepared by the Directorate of Strategy and Innovation in March 2002: ‘We should also,’ it warned, ‘expect considerable anti-Western sentiment among a populace that has experienced ten years of sanctions.’ In evidence given to Chilcot in December 2009 senior FCO officials did say, with the benefit of hindsight, and with condescending sarcasm, that they never shared the US neocons’ ‘touching faith’ that most Iraqis would treat the invasion as a liberation. But they certainly didn’t anticipate large numbers of Iraqis taking up arms against the occupiers.

Why were the Foreign Office’s prewar assessments so poor? One reason is that much of its officials’ energy was spent on winning international support for a series of UN resolutions. Another is that, since the US was doing most of the planning for the invasion, Britain’s input was increasingly marginal, especially when in the later stages the Pentagon took over from the State Department, the FCO’s main interlocutor. British officials recommended that there should be no dismantling of Iraq’s governmental and security structures and had not expected that the US would disband the Iraqi army and dismiss administrators who had been senior members of the Baath Party.

But none of this excuses the failure to issue warnings. Western forces were about to invade and destabilise a major Arab country: there would clearly be consequences. Before the Chilcot Report was published I interviewed Sir John Holmes, who in 2002 and 2003 was Britain’s ambassador in France. He told me there was ‘a lot of unease’ in the FCO about an invasion. ‘For example,’ he said, ‘I wrote privately from Paris to the permanent under-secretary saying I was very worried about the diplomatic fall-out in Europe and the Middle East. Others were no doubt doing similar things. However, although I’m sure there were serious discussions in London about the wisdom of it all, I’m not aware of any direct or organised challenge to the basis of policy.’ He argued that when it comes to military interventions, things sometimes move too fast to assess possible consequences. This was the case with the Libyan intervention. But with Iraq there had been plenty of time. ‘We didn’t do proper planning,’ he said. ‘We didn’t listen to the experts. That’s obvious.’

Christopher Prentice, who headed the FCO’s Near East Department in 2002 before becoming ambassador in Jordan, explained the institutional nature of the problem. ‘We were set the policy,’ he said, ‘and had to deliver it. In Amman I was not involved in anything other than engaging Jordanians in getting their support and explaining our policy. We were not putting up warning flags from the field. I operated on the assumption that planning was being taken care of by London and Washington.’ Although he was head of the Near East department, he ‘wasn’t privy to any debate or written papers which challenged the basis of policy. If there was a challenge, it was done on a very narrow basis and not copied widely.’

Another former British ambassador, who wished not to be named, told me what should have happened: ‘In circumstances like those of early March 2003, one would have expected the permanent under-secretary to send the secretary of state a formal note warning him of the risks of going to war, pointing up the doubtful legal base, the uncertainties about the intelligence, and the danger of dismantling Saddam’s Iraq by force without a credible plan for putting it back together again.’ His diagnosis of what went wrong was blunt: ‘Civil servants are by their nature cautious. There is collective self-discipline and people wanting an easy life and becoming morally and intellectually lazy, so they just do what the minister wants.’

Now, of course, that minister is Boris Johnson, a man who has written of the ‘watermelon smiles’ of Congolese ‘tribal chiefs’ and the ‘piccaninnies’ of the Commonwealth. That such a careless clown can be put in charge is almost a punishment for the Foreign Office, the latest stumble in a long descent. Now Britain’s most urgent international relations issue, the work of negotiating Brexit, will be done by a separate government department. The FCO – once an intellectual powerhouse and the brainiest ministry in Whitehall – will be definitively reduced under Johnson to flag-waving, showmanship and trade promotion. It’s where it has been heading since well before the war in Iraq.

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Vol. 38 No. 16 · 11 August 2016

Jonathan Steele’s article on Chilcot is the first I have seen which asks the FCO: what did you do in the war (LRB, 28 July)? A great deal has been heard about the failings of the intelligence services and the military. As a retired Foreign Office man I have been looking for an assessment of the role played by the foreign secretary and his officials, but almost everything I have seen has concentrated on the FCO’s legal advisers and the question of the legality of the war. Much comment has been directed at what are described as ‘intelligence failures’, but seem to me to be policy failures.

Speaking in the House of Lords in the debate on Chilcot, Michael Jay said:

the inquiry is critical of the government and, among others, of the Foreign Office, for the degree of preparation for the aftermath of conflict. As permanent secretary to the Foreign Office at the time, I accept that criticism. As I said when I gave evidence to the inquiry, we could and should have carried out a more thorough assessment ourselves of the possible consequences of the invasion than we did.

He did not attempt to explain further. Steele quotes John Holmes, then ambassador in Paris: ‘There was “a lot of unease" in the FCO about an invasion’ – I bet there was – ‘we didn’t listen to the experts.’ You didn’t have to be an expert. I am no expert on Iraq, but I wrote a letter to the Financial Times before the war, in August 2002 (it wasn’t printed), making the point that an attack would lead to the fragmentation of Iraq and would threaten all the countries in the region.

If cabinet government had been functioning as it did in the past, the FCO would have put up formal advice, normally in the form of a paper for circulation to cabinet, covering such questions as the likely response from Iraqis to an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the likely effect on and response from other countries in the region. Clearly Tony Blair’s method of government excluded that. Clare Short told Chilcot that cabinet meetings ‘were very short. There were never papers. There were little chats about things, but it wasn’t a decision-making body in any serious way, and I don’t remember at all Iraq coming to the cabinet in any way whatsoever at that time.’

I would also have expected to see a political office, headed by or including a senior FCO official, attached to the military commander to provide him with advice on the local situation (for example the likely consequences of de-Baathification, tribal problems, sectarian complications) and a link to civilian government departments such as the Department for International Development (DfID). I worked with the political office of the commander-in-chief in Aden in the 1960s, and in the political office of the commander-in-chief in Cyprus in the 1970s. In 2003 I asked a colonel on leave from Iraq, who had told me that he’d set up a new police force in his area but had no idea how much to pay them, why he didn’t seek advice from DfID. ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘We were not allowed to communicate with London.’ According to an Arabist from the diplomatic service who was consul general in Basra in 2006, the military’s political advisers were Ministry of Defence civilians working within the military chain of command (one was castigated at one point for telling the consul general too much).

Perhaps the Americans or Tony Blair turned down the idea of a political office; the evidence does not seem to be there in Chilcot. Steele quotes Edward Chaplin, the Middle East director at the FCO at the time, saying that information on Iraq was patchy because the UK had no embassy in Baghdad. That is a familiar problem, and there is a better-than-nothing solution: a shadow embassy in London, filling the gap as best it can with information from other sources – friendly diplomatic services, academia, the media, business etc. But to do this resources have to be available, which they probably weren’t. ‘I never felt I had sufficient resources to do anything I was doing in the Foreign Office,’ Michael Jay said.

During my time at the Foreign Office, which ended in 1996, the Diplomatic Service was cut by about 1 per cent a year, which was unpleasant but not unreasonable. Since then it has been cut much more savagely, and experiments have been undertaken, such as cutting language training (a decision now happily reversed). It will be expected to play a large part in handling Brexit, and on past form will have to get by for the most part by cutting other activities. How can the FCO maintain its old position as the source of expert advice on the whole range of foreign affairs, with the necessary deep knowledge to tackle the next foreign crisis God knows where, and the one after that?

Steele is a bit hard on my former colleagues when he quotes an anonymous retired ambassador as saying: ‘Civil servants are by their nature cautious … people wanting an easy life … so they just do what the minister wants.’ One of the things ministers wanted was volunteers to take up difficult and extremely dangerous posts to help run the ‘bloody mess’ which was not called occupied Iraq, and plenty of them came from the Diplomatic Service. As for speaking truth to power, Ivor Roberts, who made his name as ambassador in Belgrade during the war there, wrote a valedictory dispatch full of home truths to such effect that the then foreign secretary Margaret Beckett banned valedictory dispatches.

One small recent incident has me deeply worried. On 21 July, the FCO issued a statement retracting earlier ministerial statements made in answer to four written parliamentary questions by Philip Hammond and in two debates by David Lidington and Tobias Ellwood. Two of the questions were put nearly six months ago. The substance of the retraction was important.The ministers said that alleged breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition had been assessed and that there was no evidence of a breach. It turns out that these statements were untrue – no assessment had been made. As a retired bureaucrat I am interested in how these untruths got through the system. Like many civil servants I was often involved in drafting replies to Parliamentary Questions. The process was exceptionally thorough, and it is unthinkable that simple mistakes of this kind could have remained undetected. I have repeatedly been shocked by other failures of the system, for example to produce replies to important letters addressed to ministers (or, a different point, shocked by the illiteracy of some of the replies produced). But this is sheer bureaucratic collapse – for any civil servant, PQs are the Holy Grail.

Oliver Miles
Oxford

Vol. 38 No. 17 · 8 September 2016

I was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until 2010, long after Oliver Miles left, and there is to my mind a lot of force in his assessment of its failure to speak truth to power over Iraq (Letters, 11 August). Returning in 2005 after eight years abroad, I quickly came to understand that this was not the FCO I knew and (almost) loved – an institution traditionally full of the most talented, eccentric and outspoken individuals. The new atmosphere of conformity and demoralisation was palpable, aggravated by the rapid turnover of foreign secretaries and junior ministers.

Firmly in charge were the Blair collaborators, underpinned by a new generation of liberal interventionists propelled to stardom by the Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s – some having arrived sideways from politics, the UN, charities or the media. Longer-serving diplomats formed a passive resistance, or a silent majority at any rate, and seemed to be regarded with suspicion, as if fatally infected with the scepticism and circumspection learned during the long conflicts of the Cold War. Now, career advancement was expressly linked to volunteering for (futile but preferably repeated) stints of duty in war zones like Baghdad, Basra, Kabul and Lashkar Gah, a willingness to be shot at seemingly trumping all other qualifications.

At the same time, in response to mounting pressure on resources from 2007 onwards, the FCO fell victim to a cult of managerialism that seemed to regard foreign policy as an inconvenient side-issue. Under a faddish doctrine of providing a ‘facilitating platform across government’, the FCO stopped trying to do anything well on its own, and was soon known to the general public only for its travel advice. The FCO entered the coalition years as a hollowed-out shell, symbolised by the scrapping of the diplomatic service language school and David Miliband’s dismantling of the splendid Victorian library.

Some think that Thatcher started the rot by sucking foreign policy away to Number Ten. But it was Iraq that decisively ended the FCO’s position as a great – once the greatest – department of state. Where was it, for instance, in the EU referendum debate, the biggest foreign policy issue for generations? The appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary might be seen as the final sick joke, a nadir of institutional humiliation. Ever the optimist, I cling to the thought that the same was probably said of Ernest Bevin, who turned out an unexpected success.

David Roberts
West Horsley, Surrey

Vol. 38 No. 18 · 22 September 2016

David Roberts refers to ‘David Miliband’s dismantling of the splendid Victorian Library’ at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Letters, 8 September). I have been looking for a volume of ‘Condoléances’ on the death of Prince Albert subscribed at the British Consulate in Pau in December 1861 by the ‘hivernantes Britanniques’ of the day. There would have been many such volumes across Europe and the Empire. The volume for Pau (perhaps a foolscap sheaf of a dozen leaves with just over a hundred names) was exhibited in Pau in 1978 by courtesy of the ‘Foreign Office’. My inquiries led to the National Archives, the library at King’s College London and other collections, all to no avail; what remains of the FCO Library denies all knowledge of the volume or of having any file of correspondence relating to its despatch or its return.

Stephen Massil
London N8

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