September 14, 2007

'Muscular diplomacy failing the West'

The Ambassador to Washington tells our correspondent that warfare alone is not enough to counter world terrorism

Britain’s most senior ambassador has made an impassioned call for a “new diplomacy”, suggesting that the muscular approach to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq is no longer sufficient.

Sir David Manning, formerly Tony Blair’s right-hand man on foreign policy, said: “It’s not enough just to go on about terrorism and the Middle East peace process . . . we need to find new ways of bridging and reaching out.”

He highlighted the role of madrassas, Islamic religious schools often seen as incubators for terrorists, as he called for the creation of a world education fund to stop children falling prey to extremist ideologies.

“If you’re worried about Muslim extremism, can’t we find some way of helping those who want to set up networks of schools to counter the pervasive influences of these madrassas — but don’t yet have the money?

“When I see how much money we’re spending on other things, it does seem to me to be a very poor investment on our part.”

He asked: “How many schools could you get for an aircraft carrier?”

Sir David, who leaves his post as British Ambassador to the United States next month, has rarely spoken out publicly in such forceful fashion during an illustrious 35-year diplomatic career.

Indeed, as Tony Blair’s chief foreign and security policy adviser in 2001-03 and thereafter Ambassador to Washington, he has been at the heart of decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an interview with The Times he emphasised that existing foreign policy priorities remain “terribly important”, but added: “We have to move beyond that. I suppose at the end of my time I’m allowed to think outside the box.”

Sir David, 57, does not know what he will do when he quits the Foreign Office next month and denied that his idea for a world education fund is a pitch for a new job. But he does not need much invitation to expand on the scheme: A global education fund would have to operate like the World Bank, he said, without “any one country’s fingerprints all over it”. It could also attract investment from big corporations, particularly those with a stake in the security of energy supplies.

And, as ever, he believes it would also require strong transatlantic co-operation. But this long-standing principle of British foreign policy — which he described as a sense of “solidarity” with the US — was, he admits, only “part of the reason” why Mr Blair ordered British troops into Iraq.

Although he suggested that Mr Blair was not hell-bent on “dealing with Iraq through warfare”, Sir David added: “The Prime Minister’s view was that this [Saddam] was a mass murderer who had committed appalling abuses of human rights and was also a real regional threat.”

Is Iraq a better place for the war? “I don’t think I can say that,” he replied. “It depends on who you are. Certainly it’s better if you’re a Kurd, but not better if you are someone in Baghdad who has lost their friends and relations in sectarian killing.” The West had slowly learnt it took time to build a democracy and “we’re still not very good at it”. But Sir David gave warning about a possible “disintegration of society” if the US military “goes and goes quickly”.

He acknowledged there is argument that “if we pull out now that will force the pace of reconciliation”, but added: “I’m a bit sceptical about it.” So why did some British troops pull out of Basra last week? “Conditions are different in different parts of the country”.

Was he aware of US Administration criticisms about the timing of the withdrawal? “There are optical problems when there is a surge going on of American forces and Brits apparently withdrawing some of their forces in the south.

“But this is not sudden, nor secret, and we’ve always said this is our approach,” said Sir David, who added that Britain should not be regarded as an “echo chamber” for US policy. These included differences with the US in Afghanistan over Britain’s opposition to aerial spraying of opium poppy fields. How were relations between Mr Bush and Gordon Brown? Inevitably different to those with Mr Blair, replied Sir David. “You have to allow people to settle down.” But in Camp David in July, it was “very cheerful and relaxed”. His own departure next month will mark that of the last member of Mr Blair’s foreign policy team which established extraordinarily close relations with that of Mr Bush.

Indeed, on the eve of the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, he had stayed so late in Washington discussing policy with Condoleezza Rice that he had to catch a flight to New York the next morning.

As he flew in, he saw the burning World Trade Centre and then, after landing, was ordered to evacuate the airport. But Sir David disobeyed the rules, climbing on to a baggage carousel and then crawling through the rubber gate at the end of the conveyer belt, where — “unbelievably” he found his bag. “It was a stupid thing to do. These days I would probably have been arrested,” said Sir David, a diplomat with a less conventional approach to problems than perhaps was once assumed.

The diplomat

— David Manning has spent 35 years working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, starting his career after graduating from Oxford in 1972

— Before being Ambassador to Washington he held posts as (among others) Ambassador to Israel and Ambassador to Nato. From 2001 to 2003 he was Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser

— During the Hutton inquiry he was questioned about the initial Downing Street meetings on David Kelly, the weapons expert who committed suicide in 2003

— His wife, Catherine, writes thrillers under the pen name Elizabeth Ironside. Her novel A Very Private Enterprise is set in the British High Commission in Delhi

— Mr Manning’s posting at the Moscow Embassy spanned the fall of communism. On Christmas Day, 1991, he sent a note to John Major’s Government telling them that the hammer and sickle at the Kremlin was being replaced with the Russian tricolour. He wrote: “I am watching the red flag coming down”

Source: Times archive, agencies, Foreign and Commonwealth Office