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British diplomatic services are incompetent nowadays - Foreign Office veteran

The Middle East has turned into a constant battlefield. War rages in Iraq and Syria, violence is a common occurrence between Gaza and Israel, Libya’s in turmoil. We’ve spoken many times about the role of the US in this never-ending conflict, but what about its closest ally? What path is there for the United Kingdom? Should it follow Washington’s lead, or there are better choices for the people of Britain? What solution can it bring to the Mid-East - or should it leave this riddle aside? We ask a prominent former ambassador and ex-chief of the Foreign Office’s Near-East and North Africa Department, Oliver Miles, on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Oliver Miles, retired British ambassador,former chief of the Foreign Office’s Near East and North Africa Department, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, you were always strongly opposed to Tony Blair’s role as a middle east peace envoy and you’ve called him a “war criminal” for his actions in Iraq. It is now said he will be leaving the post - why do you believe he was unable to achieve anything?

Oliver Miles:Well, first of all, the post was a very strange one, because he was not appointed as a peace envoy, he never actually claimed to be peace envoy. The peace process was given toGeorge Mitchell, senator, and then subsequentlypicked by John Kerry, but not Tony Blair.

SS: Who do you picture as a replacement after he leaves his post?

OM: Well, if you’re talking about a replacement as “peace envoy” - that’s really a completely new concept, because the quartet as such has always left it to the Americans, to provide the centerpiece of peace negotiations. Well, the Americans have failed, and the reason they failed is because they’re too close to Israel and they found it very-very difficult for political reasons to stand up to Israel when they had to, where there was a compromise, which required some give on the Israeli side. So, if you’re talking about a new peace envoy, I personally wouldn’t want to see it as representing the “quartet”. I think it ought to be… I’m in favor of European envoy, I’m in favor of UN envoy; I’m not against the American envoy, but the Quartet, I think is not a convincing framework.

SS: But going back to Tony Blair’s role at this post - why do you think he wasn’t able to achieve much?

OM: Well, I’m told he did achieve a bit in his task of developing the Palestinian economy, but of course that’s a very secondary task, related to the big issue, which is to find a compromise, a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine - if you don’t do that, then economic development is fine, I’m not against economic development, but look at Gaza - Gaza’s just a heap of ruins! It’s no good having an economic development unless you have peace.

SS: Netanyahu recently said that there’ll be no Palestine as long as he’s in power. So, are peace efforts today impossible? What can move the Middle East peace effort?

OM: Of course, Netanyahu said that at the high point of the election, which is just over. It seems he did very well in the election, which is not very encouraging news for those of us who are looking mainly for a peace settlement. Israeli elections, like our elections don’t just depend on foreign affairs - in fact, much more they depend on internal issues, like Israeli economy and so on. I think we’ll have to assume that what Netanyahu said is subject to variation, because he hasn’t even formed a government, yet, he’s going to find that very difficult - Israeli governments are always coalitions, he’s got to bring all the parties to work with him, and that process hasn’t even started.

SS: Just a bit more about Tony Blair. I know you’ve been very outspoken about this Mr. Blair’s association with the war in Iraq, “makes him an incompetent Middle East peace envoy - you’ve said it a couple of times.” - but he wasn’t the only one who had a hand in the invasion of Iraq. Why is he the only one being publicly targeted. I mean, most often, at least, in England?

OM: Well, he’s a very controversial figure in England, internally. He was very-very successful Prime Minister in some respects, but he stayed too long, like most prime ministers do - and a lot of people very disillusioned. One of the main reasons they were disillusioned was over the Iraq war, not just because he got the intelligence wrong and he told us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when it turned out that he didn’t, and so one; but the whole way the war was run, with no planning or no effective planning, the way that we allowed American decisions to be taken, which were extremely damaging - all that has stuck to Tony Blair in British opinion. Now, of course, George Bush also is not very popular these days, but George Bush is out of sight. Tony Blair has remained very much in sight, and I find it mysterious, to be frank, that the British government, which, after all, now is a Conservative government, opposite party from Tony Blair, has been happy that he continue this role. Russia has been happy that he should continue this role. Very strange. He’s popular in America, but not popular in Britain or Europe.

SS: Now, you’ve just mentioned a misleading intelligence that was a huge issue in Iraq war, obviously, and in the aftermath of the Iraq war. You’ve also wrote that the lack of adequate training, especially in languages, has hindered British diplomacy in recent years. Does that mean the Foreign Office is not making informed decisions?

OM: What worries me as an old-timer from the Foreign Office, if you like, is that the British Foreign Office and British diplomatic service used to have very good reputation for foreign languages, unlike Britain generally, because British people are not good at foreign languages, but the diplomatic services is or was, and we also, perhaps more important than the question of languages, we had a good reputation for having deep understanding of foreign policy issues generally - so when we were talking to the Americans or the other Commonwealth countries or to anyone, I mean, I remember, for example, myself going to Moscow in 1982 for discussions with the Soviet Foreign Ministry about Middle Eastern affairs and we were able to hold our own with the Great Powers and in some ways we were better than the Great Powers. Now, I don’t think that it is true.

SS: Now, the letter that is calling for mr. Blairs removal from the post of envoy to the Middle East says “he was responsible for the rise of fundamentalist terrorism in the land where none existed previously” and that means Iraq, obviously. Now, wouldn’t it be also fair to say the same about those responsible for strikes against Libya?

OM: Yes, some people would say that. I don’t agree with that myself, because I think that although I was very hesitant about it, I think it actually, the decision to go into Libya in 2011, to send aircraft, the NATO and Arab League intervention, was right. I was, as I said, very hesitant about it, but it got the agreement of the UNSC, if you remember, with three permanent members - Britain, France and U.S. in favor and Russia and China allowed it to go through by abstaining - I think that it was necessary to prevent an act genocide by Gaddafi at that time. It was limited, I think that British PM put quite right when he said, quite early on, I think it was in September 2011, he said “we finish our intervention now, the revolution is successful, now it’s up to the Libyans”...

SS: Yeah, but what I am really talking about is intervention that actually breeds terrorism and fundamentalism - because we do see ISIS in Libya right now as well, that’s what I meant.

OM: ISIS? And you blame that on the intervention in 2011? And you would rather see Gaddafi there still? I wouldn’t personally. I think, if anyone’s to blame - I am afraid, that’s the Libyans. The fact is that the libyans set out in 2011 to try to build a state, and for various reasons they haven’t yet succeeded. It would be too early to say that they’ve failed, and I think we should give them every possible support in what they’re trying to do now, which is to reach agreement internally, to form a national government and to manage a ceasefire. ISIS, or IS, or Islamic State element in Libya is vicious and dangerous, but it’s not the key to the problem, it’s relatively small, it’s not the situation that you have, for example, in most of Iraq, where the whole business of government has been taken over by Islamic State, that doesn’t exist in Libya.

SS: But this is just a question of time, though, isn’t it? It’s not now, but it will be soon, and all the data is actually leading us to think it will be rather sooner than later…

OM: I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that at all. No, I think that IS or whatever we’re going to call them, ISIL, are a threat, but I don’t see any reason to suppose that they’ll be more of the threat tomorrow that they are now - on the contrary I think that it may well be that their high-point has passed.

SS: That’s interesting. Also, in 2012, because you were so outspoken about Libya as well, you wrote that “media reports suggesting Libya is on the brink of civil war are absurd” - do they still seem as absurd to you as of today? Because, I mean, we don’t see a state, an army, a centralised government, governing the country. It does seem like Libya is in shambles right now.

OM: Yes, it’s very depressing. Things have got a great deal worse since then. You’re quite right to remind me of what I’ve said in 2012, and that was based on what I saw and I was there. I think to talk about civil war at that time was absurd, but things have gone a lot worse since then. It is still not a civil war, but it is...you used the word “shambles” - I think that is not much of an exaggeration of it, if it is an exaggeration at all. The reason I say it is not a civil war is that if you compare it with Syria or you compare it with Algeria, when Algeria had civil war, or Lebanon when Lebanon had civil war - the situation was vastly worse. Now, of course, it could become vastly worse in Libya, but let’s not assume that it will - let’s try and prevent it.

SS: When you say “let’s try and prevent it” - what exactly do you mean? Because I just want to recap, so, 4 years after the Western-led Libyan intervention, we are seeing Islamic State gaining ground - you think not that much - I think maybe more, because they’re talking over oil fields, and there’s no central government or army as we said - but should we be seeing Western allies back in Libya right now? Why isn’t anyone intervening right now?

OM: You’re exaggerating. They’re not taking over oil fields. They’ve attacked oil fields, they’ve damaged oil fields and then had withdrawn. These are hit-and-run attacks. The real problem is not ISIS or Islamic State in Libya, the real problem is the failure of the various Libyan groups, including the two claimants to government, one based in Tripoli, the other based in Tobruk - to reach an agreement. That can be done, and that’s what we should be trying to do. And, when, for example, the Libyans say, as they have done, “please relax embargo on arms, please arm our forces, please do this, please do that” - our reply should be “Yes. We will do that in support of the united Libyan government, but not for an individual faction”.

SS: Now, mr. Miles in horrific videos we’re seeing from ISIS executions online, a regular figure is a British jihadi, the man we know by the name of “Jihadi John”. And he’s not the only briton who has joined their ranks.

OM: That’s right.

SS: What makes them go there? Why can’t security services control this movement?

OM: Everyone in the world is asking that question, because you’re quite right to talk about British jihadists, people who have gone from Britain, people who have gone from many countries around the world, from Europe or America, from Russia, China, the Far East, Indonesia - you name it. There seems to be something very-very attractive there, and I think, it’s quite difficult for people like me to understand what’s driving it, because the obvious answer would be to say: “these are young people who are absolutely frustrated by alienation from the societies in which they live, whether that society happens to be Britain or any other country, that they feel frustrated and they feel they’re not given any dignity and so on, and so they turn away from that and they look for adventure, excitement and the sense of purpose, fighting in these countries where there’s conflict going on now, like Syria and Iraq.” The trouble with that explanation is that when you actually look at the individuals who’ve gone, for example, from Britain - and I think the same is true in other countries - they don’t really fit that pattern. Many of them are quite prosperous, many of them are quite well-educated, they’re from families who have got a position in our society, not perhaps a perfect position - but then, who has… I think one has to look at even simpler explanation, perhaps, which is that this is rebellion of young people against their parents. Some people have pointed out that, in case of Britain, for example, they’re not usually talking about “immigrants”, and I don’t think even talking about second generation of immigrants. You’re probably talking about third generation of immigrants, that is to say young people whose grandparents immigrated into Britain, who maybe have done quite well here, and are now trying to persuade their children and grandchildren to become normal members of British society - and they don’t find that attractive. They’re looking for something else.

SS: But that’s a really funny way to rebel against your parents. With Britain now directly affected by the rise of ISIS, its citizens travelling to wage jihad, with everything that’s happened - is the UK still willing to carry out interventions abroad? I just want your personal take on that.

OM: I think that will depend entirely on what sort of interventions you are talking about. It is certainly true that at the moment, right now, this year, last year, there is a strong reaction against what is perceived as the wrong intervention we made in Iraq and a very doubtful intervention we made in Afghanistan. Right now it is perfectly clear that Parliament representing the people and speaking in an unusually direct way for the people, has ruled out the idea of what they’re calling “boots on the ground” - that is to say, sending British soldiers or troops to fight in these wars. But, that’s not… I don’t see that as a permanent change. I think these things go “up and down”, so to speak. Everyone knows that in America, for example, there was a long period after the Vietnam war when America seemed to have turned its back permanently on military intervention, but that didn’t last forever, and I don’t think will last forever, either.

SS: But, right, like you’ve said, it doesn’t last forever and there are different degrees of involvement - but you’ve said it: UK is leading airstrikes against ISIS - and they are sending troops to aid Iraqi forces, not “boots on the ground”, but consultants or whatever you call it. Does the UK have to be involved now for whatever period of time?

OM: No, I don’t think we do - if you want my personal answer…

SS: Yeah.

OM: I don’t think we should be doing it, and I think we’ve done more than we should have done - but what we’ve done is actually quite limited, I am against it, but it is quite limited. I think that the very rapid military success of ISIS last year in Iraq, in particular, and then linking up with Syria, produced very very serious threat and somebody had to react to it - and the reaction came from the Americans, not in terms of boots on the ground but in terms of airstrikes, and I believe that was necessary, but the only way that problem will be solved is by the countries in the area themselves, above all, by Iraq, but also by Syria, by Iran and by the neighboring countries, by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and so - the countries that are threatened. They got to do the job, we shouldn’t be doing the job.

SS: What do you mean when you say “they’ve got to do the job”, because, obviously, like you pointed out, the international airstrike campaign isn’t enough to eradicate ISIS - so when you talk about neighboring countries dealing with this problem, do you mean they need to wage the war against ISIS, they need to send boots on the ground, or what exactly do you have in mind?

OM: I think the responsibility for answering your question rests with the governments of Iraq and Syria, the other ones who’ve got the problem on their hands. If there’s a threat, a real military threat, I mean, not a hypothetical threat, but a real military threat to neighboring countries, whether it is Saudi Arabia or Iran, or Jordan or Lebanon - then those countries too have a right to respond; but the prime responsibility rests with them. We, the international community - Britain, America, Russia - should be ready to consider requests for help from those countries, but the initial drive has got to come from them.

SS: Now, even if the campaign in Iraq proves to be successful and, you know, we pray to God it will, the main ISIS base is Syria - will the coalition on the Iraq border, or will it invade Syria?

OM: That’s really uncertain. Nobody can answer those questions at the moment. The fact is that ISIS have declared, in effect declared the border to be abolished. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has to accept that, but we have to accept that ISIS will move from one to the other as it sees fit. Now, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can ignore those borders, and we don’t - for example, in the case of my own country, we have authorised airstrikes by our forces and support of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq - but not in Syria.

SS: But, look how the situation has turned around - the West and Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad are both fighting ISIS. Do you think the UK and U.S. will have to start talking to Bashar Assad - or at least consider him part of the equation to defeat ISIS?

OM: Yes, I think the answer to your question is yes. He will have to be part of the negotiation, unless, of course, he’s overthrown successfully by the revolution, in the way that, for example, in Libya - we had the same argument in the end, it was settled by the Libyans, they killed Gaddafi. If the Syrians...it’s up to them, but as long as there’s a government by somebody whose name is Assad - I think that that will be part of the political negotiation which we all hope will bring about a settlement. It isn’t just hope - in a sense, you can say, we know that they will bring about a settlement, the question is when? Will it take years and years to do or can we do it now?

SS: Now, Saudi Arabia recently stated that it will consider developing nuclear arms in light of thedétentebetween Iran and other major world powers. Will the West sanction Saudis the same way it does Iran, if that happens - what do you think?

OM: It depends on how the Saudis go about it. I don’t actually think that it is going to happen, but if it did happen, there would be concerns, because there’s always concern when a new country joins the nuclear club. Nobody wants to see that happen, because we’re all afraid that the more countries have nuclear weapons, the greater the risk that one day some disastrous mistake or manipulation of the situation by some party or another will lead to a nuclear war. That’s a terrible threat which we’re all aware of, but we have to be realistic, we know that several countries, whether you think of Israel or Pakistan or India - have acquired nuclear weapons. Very-very difficult to see them giving up those weapons - although it has happened in the past. Nobody wants to see proliferation of nuclear weapons, but on the other hand you can understand why a power, Saudi Arabia or another, seeing that Israel, seeing that Iran, seeing that Pakistan, have nuclear weapons - think “why should we have nuclear weapons?”.

SS: You know that Iran has called for Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Do you think Tehran is dreaming?

OM: No, I think it is a perfectly legitimate political ploy, but that is not going to happen, because the only way… I mean, can you imagine any way in which Israel is going to give up its nuclear weapons? I can’t.

SS: I want to ask you a question about UK-U.S. relationship. It always has been characterised as “special” - but is it doing more harm than good for Britain? I mean, getting the country into all these foreign military adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan?

OM: Yes. A qualified yes. I think that the talk about “special relationship” is misleading. Each relationship is special. The British media are rather hooked on it, and British political world is rather hooked on the idea that Britain has a special relationship with America. Don’t believe it. We have a close relationship with America, we want to have a close relationship with America, but so do plenty of other countries.

SS: So, you believe that this relationship that they call “special” is just a mere exaggeration?

OM: It’s a very important relationship indeed. It is quite close. We feel and the Americans feel quite close, but that doesn’t mean that we’re the 51st or whatever it is, state of America - we’re not, and we have no intention of being. When we see - as we have seen - rather too close following of American policy in a big mistake, like invasion of Iraq, naturally, we question the relationship with America. We say: “wouldn’t we be better off being a little bit less special” - that’s a perfectly legitimate question. You look at France, for example - France refused to become involved in the Iraq war, the Americans were very critical of France at the time, there was talk of renaming “french fries…”

SS: I know, “freedom fries”, I was actually living in States by then. They’ve renamed it “freedom fries”, exactly.

OM: As a former diplomat and taking a detached view on a question, I ask - did France actually lose anything in its relationship with America over that? I don’t believe they did. I don’t believe the Americans punished them in any way. I don’t believe the Americans rewarded us in any way.

SS: Mr. Miles, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Oliver Miles, retired British ambassador, high-ranking diplomat at the foreign office, discussing Britain’s engagement in the Middle East, who the world powers should be talking to, to solve the crisis in Syria and Iraq, and if ISIS poses a direct threat to Britain and the Western states. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.