It was an old diplomatic hand in the Middle East - one of the "Arabists" so contemptuously dismissed in relation to this week's letter to Mr Blair - who taught me one of the great lessons in understanding the region. In the Middle East, he said, it's not where your enemies come from that matters, it's who supports you when they do come. It enabled him to get it right about the fall of the Shah. Nobody came to the Shah's help when the riots developed. It also helped to explain why the Saudi regime has (so far) survived. It has managed to lock in a sufficiently wide range of interests who would suffer if the Crown were overthrown.
That which applies to the Middle East could also apply at home. What is really intriguing about Tony Blair after the last week is not so much his own intentions but who is left supporting him. Most of the backbenchers have deserted him after Iraq and top-up fees. Half the Cabinet distrusts him after botched reshuffles. The reformist politicians , particularly the constitutional reformers in the ranks of the Lib Dems, have long since limped away from him, nursing the wounds of his betrayals over the House of Lords, and PR. The pro-Europeans are now openly frothing at the decision to go for a referendum which leaves them promoting a fight on grounds they didn't want. And now the foreign affairs establishment has mustered the strength to come out with a missive declaring their sense of betrayal over the Middle East and policy in Iraq.
It is easy enough to dismiss the letter of the 52 former ambassadors as the frustrated bellows of the "camel corps" of the Foreign Office. The Arabists of the service do feel frustrated, and not just because of Tony Blair's decision to hug close to what they see as a dangerously prejudiced US President. Over the years, this section of the Foreign Office - contrary to received opinion - has felt increasingly marginalised by the ever-upward movement of the European-speakers. The way to the top was now via Bonn (or now Berlin), Paris and above all Brussels, not through Cairo. The Arabists seemed a side-show to the concerns of Prime Ministers spending most of their time on European issues. Until, that is, Iraq came along to change all that.
Iraq has changed all that, however, and you can't dismiss the galaxy of experience and expertise represented by Monday's letter as being the outpourings of an arcane discipline. If nothing else their expertise matters. Half the problems the Americans have encountered in the post-invasion handling of Iraq has been the lack of diplomats with Middle East experience and Arabic speakers in the US government service - many of them, it has to be said, hounded by the relentless assault of the pro-Zionist lobbies attacking the study at university and the reputation of individuals in public life. To accuse people in the foreign services of getting too wrapped up in the interests of the countries in which they serve rather than the interests of the country they represent - the most common charge against diplomats - is all very well in untroubled times. But when it comes to crises you need that ability to empathise in order to understand.
We wouldn't have got into trouble we did in seeking a UN resolution before going to war if we'd had a few more diplomats who understood the French or the Third World countries whose vote we sought. Nor would Tony Blair have been so blind to the implications of his support of the Bush lurch to the Sharon plan if he'd some better advice in Number 10. The Prime Minister's defenders protest that Tony Blair didn't really support the Sharon plan when he made his remarks last week. But the point is that the whole of the Middle East, without exception, understood him as doing so - a mistake which would never have happened if he'd had better grounded advice.
What should concern the Prime Minister is the extent to which the letter expresses a feeling through much of the Foreign Office that the concentration of decision-making in Number 10 is isolating him from wider advice. It's what happened with intelligence in the run-up to war, as the evidence to the Hutton inquiry showed. Now it's happening with foreign policy.
Which inevitably brings in the Foreign Secretary's role. If Jack Straw didn't know what was in the wind, he should be fired for neglect of departmental duty. If he did and failed to warn the Prime Minister's Office - which seems to be the case from the shaky initial response from Number 10 - then Tony Blair might well ask himself what his increasingly semi-detached Cabinet colleague is up to.
But the real importance of the letter is its content. By entering the political field its authors can expect to be rubbished as meddlers. But look down the list of the 52 signatories and you are struck by the fact that their experience covers not just the Middle East but Russia, the UN and Europe as well.
That says something about how central the Middle East remains as international problem right across global relations. It also suggests how far the Prime Minister's determination to remain close to the US administration has cost him the support of officials who would normally describe themselves as Atlanticists. And if he no longer has the commitment of Europhiles or Atlanticists, whose support does he have?Reuse content