Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 24-39)



  Q24  Chairman: Mr Ross, thank you for coming today. I am sorry that we kept you waiting for a few minutes, but unfortunately we started a few minutes late. I must warn you that we are in a strange situation today. The House is proroguing, and the Committee is not allowed to continue after the House is prorogued. Therefore, we have about 34 minutes, I hope. Hopefully we will get through as much as possible, but the rules of the House are clear. Sadly, it is one of those odd days that only occur once a year. I welcome you. You have sent us a very helpful paper that sets out quite robustly your views on a number of issues. I do not want to refer to it directly, but perhaps you could give us your overall view of the active diplomacy document. Do you believe that it is helpful to the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for it to publish such documents?

  Mr Ross: First, thank you for having me. I am glad to be here. My views on the paper are pretty clear from my evidence. I do not think that it is helpful. I think that it is a kind of smokescreen in front of the reality of British foreign policy. It talks in such general terms about that foreign policy that it is not actually provocative of a useful or constructive debate. It does not even refer in detail, for instance, to the fact that Britain is in military occupation of two foreign countries right now. I take that just as an example, but you have already touched in your discussion this morning on other rather odd omissions, including much of our policy in the Middle East, including toward Israel and Palestine.

  Q25  Mr Keetch: Just for the record, as Mr Ross is known to me, I have checked with both the Clerk and the Chairman and can continue to ask him questions. Mr Ross, you say in your statement that the FCO pays little attention to Parliament and that UK policy making is done in a closed box, yet you have just heard your former boss, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, say that he always took the recommendations and reports of this Committee very seriously. Do you believe that the Foreign Office listens to the results of parliamentary scrutiny? Do you think that there is a role for Parliament in that, or are the mandarins so enclosed that they take very little or even no notice of what we or other parliamentarians might believe?

  Mr Ross: I think that the latter is true. Certainly in my career, which covered many quite central and grave issues of British foreign policy, parliamentary scrutiny and the role of the Foreign Affairs Committee made no intrusion whatever on my work. I am surprised that Sir Jeremy said what he said; I worked with him very closely in New York for four years. I have to say that there, in my work on Iraq and the Middle East more generally, the Foreign Affairs Committee, again, played no significant role in our existences. Policy on Iraq was made by a very small group of officials who submitted a very narrow range of choices to Ministers. Ministers were, of course, more worried about Parliament, but for the officials the role of Parliament and what Parliament or this Committee said about our policy was, at best, insignificant. To give you a specific example, I worked very closely on sanctions against Iraq. I negotiated many of the resolutions on Iraq over my period at the UK mission. That was a complex and important piece of policy and that policy was, I think, in the final analysis, misguided and incorrect in its premises and its direction. I had never had any experience of any MP or any Committee scrutinising my work—at least, the Department in London never told me of any such scrutiny. I can give you that as a specific example.

  Q26  Mr Keetch: So you believe that all people at the Foreign Office should be open to the kind of scrutiny that we give senior members? You believe that that scrutiny should be opened up to the more junior echelons of the Foreign Office?

  Mr Ross: Yes, I do. I think that senior members are extremely adept at giving the sort of spiel and bromidic answers about British foreign policy that to an extent you heard this morning. This document, "Active Diplomacy for a Changing World", is full of such statements. You need to talk about policy in detail. This paper is pitched at such a level of generality that it is impossible to take from it any specific discussion about what is important and what is going on in British foreign policy. I certainly think that you need to be interrogating all officials in the Foreign Office who have a role in policy making, and that includes mid-level and junior-level people as well. They are part of the pyramid of filtering of information up to Ministers. Ministers deal with things at such a level of generality that they are often unaware of crucial details of policy.

  Q27  Andrew Mackinlay: Your paragraphs 9, 11 and 12 are a devastating criticism of whether or not we scrutinise, and also of the response that one gets from the Foreign Office to any parliamentary questions, debates or scrutiny, either collectively by Parliament or by individual MPs. Do you have any examples of when there has been an attempt to minimise disclosure, either to an MP or to a parliamentary Committee, following parliamentary questions—strategy meetings to deal with difficult parliamentary questions or anything like that?

  Mr Ross: As I say, parliamentary scrutiny played such a small role in my career as an official that I do not recall any such strategy meetings or a concerted attempt to minimise disclosure. However, I was closely involved in Iraq policy for many years in the British Government. This is my first appearance before this Committee. I have never been asked to testify to any other Committee, despite the fact that I was a central part of the drafting of the premises of British policy in the UN Security Council. I take that as an example of that absence of scrutiny. I have to say that the Committee's scrutiny of the Iraq war—what led up to it, the legality of it, the decision making prior to it, the possible alternatives to war—to me stands as an example of that failure.

  Q28  Andrew Mackinlay: I am obliged. In paragraph 12, you allege that "promotion to senior positions has been in part based on the political sympathies of officials. Those closely associated with Number Ten, and who are seen to be sympathetic to the Prime Minister's prejudices, are swept up into senior positions." You also say that another consequence of recent developments is that "officials increasingly tell ministers what they wish to hear. The culture of official impartiality, and the ability of officials to tell ministers necessary truths, is undermined." Would you like to amplify on that?

  Mr Ross: It is difficult to amplify on it, because I am not prepared to name the people about whom I am talking. That would not be fair. Nor would it be fair to indulge in ad hominem criticism of particular individuals when they are in no position to respond. The trend is a general one that I and others have observed. I have checked that with my former colleagues from the FCO and with current friends who are serving in the FCO, and they have confirmed it in both aspects. The first aspect is that there is a subtle and creeping politicisation of the diplomatic service, whereby in order to get promoted one has to show oneself as being sympathetic to, and identifying with, the views of Ministers—in particular the Prime Minister. The second aspect was true under the Conservative Government as well, before Labour took office. Decision-making powers have become increasingly concentrated in No 10 rather than the Foreign Office, and the Foreign Office has become subsidiary to No 10. That means that if you want to get ahead there is nothing better than a posting to No. 10, as officials currently serving in the Foreign Office will confirm.

  Q29  Andrew Mackinlay: The impression I have from the Foreign Office is that there are still ins and outs: some people who find favour, almost like a magic circle for promotion. We know that a large number of distinguished and experienced people have "retired early," at a reasonable price, as it were. It seems to me that that is not a good use of scarce and skilled resources, and that talent is being lost. We pay people to go, and others stay because their faces fit. I cannot describe it in any other way. I want to bounce that off you. What say you about it?

  Mr Ross: I think that that is true. There is a political element at work in promotion to the most senior levels of the Foreign Office, which is wasteful of resources. More seriously, it means that all through the Foreign Office there is a tendency to tell Ministers what they wish to hear in order to advance one's own individual prospects—my former colleagues tell me that that is the case today. It is a subtle thing, and I am sure that the Foreign Office would be vehement in its rebuttal of the accusation, but I noticed it. I noticed it before I resigned, and I think that it is a waste of resources that skilled and highly trained people leave early because of it.

  Q30  Mr Horam: My point follows Andrew Mackinlay's question about paragraph 12 of your interesting document. In paragraph 13, in the conclusions and recommendations, you say, "The last few years have been disastrous for British foreign policy". What in particular is the disaster, and why has that been so?

  Mr Ross: I think that things like influence, and Britain's role in the world, are very hard to quantify and easy to debate. In my view, the measure of success or failure in foreign policy should be Karl Popper's, which is the minimisation of suffering. That should be the goal of policy. If that is the measure, our policy has been a rank disaster in the last few years in terms of blood shed. I do not want to enter the debate on how many lives may have been lost in the invasion of Iraq, but it is a great many. By that measure, that invasion has been a much greater disaster even than Suez.

  Q31  Mr Horam: Do you think that the policy would have been any more successful if the Foreign Office had been more influential? I put it to Sir Jeremy Greenstock and others that policy in the last few years has been more or less run by No 10 Downing street, not the Foreign Office; the Foreign Office has been merely a servant. If the Foreign Office had more influence in making foreign policy, would we perhaps have avoided some of those mistakes, such as Iraq?

  Mr Ross: I think that the Foreign Office would like the world to think that, and to think that if only the Foreign Office had been taken more seriously we would not be in this mess. I am not sure that that is the case. At the end of the day, the Prime Minister is in charge of British Government policy, and as a former official I accept that. That is nothing but right and it is the role of the Foreign Office to serve him. However, policy making in the run-up to the Iraq war was extremely poor, in that available alternatives to war were not properly considered, the presentation to the public of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was manipulated, and proper legal advice from the Foreign Office on the legality of the war was ignored.

  Q32  Mr Horam: Finally, on the success or failure of British foreign policy, you state, "We are so inured to the rhetoric of anti-terrorism and macho posturing... that it is hard to imagine an alternate direction for British foreign policy. But it is available ...This alternative lies in consistency of application of international law and a robust defence... of those under assault or oppression." I am particularly interested to know what you mean by consistency of application of international law. What are you getting at? Could you perhaps elaborate on that a bit?

  Mr Ross: The easiest place to observe it is in the middle east, where the accusation of double standards against British foreign policy has some weight. If you say that you stand by international law, which Active Diplomacy repeatedly does, you must apply it consistently across the board, and that means talking about it in the case of Israel-Palestine. It was very noticeable to me, as a former head of section dealing with the Arab-Israel dispute on what used to be called the Middle East peace process desk, that, in the incarnations when I worked there, the Government consistently talked about UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the discourse of occupation as the premise for British foreign policy. That is no longer the case. British Ministers rarely refer to international law when talking about Palestine. Instead, there is a sort of hand-wringing campaign in an effort to bring peace, as if we are talking about two equal parties in the dispute when in fact we are talking about one country occupying the territory of another people.

  Q33  Chairman: May I ask you a question about something that is not in your paper? You served in the Balkans, and in fact I believe that we met in that region a few years ago when I was on the Defence Committee. You do not seem to have many criticisms of the Foreign Office's approach to the Balkans and Kosovo. Do you have any?

  Mr Ross: No. In fact, in a sentence at the end of my paper, I approve of the British Government policy in Kosovo. I think that they are playing a constructive role there in pushing for an early and positive solution to the issue of Kosovo's status. Since the debacle of British inaction over genocide in Bosnia, the British Government have actually been a constructive force in the Balkans. It certainly seemed that way when I was there.

  Q34  Chairman: So I take it that your robust criticism is a bit like the curate's egg: it is good in parts as well.

  Mr Ross: Yes, certainly. I am not uniform in my criticism of all manifestations of British foreign policy, but our policy is in deep trouble in all the areas where we face the gravest problems: things such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran.

  Q35  Sir John Stanley: Mr Ross, I believe that you were in the room when Sir Jeremy Greenstock was giving evidence. I heard him say—we can check the transcript afterwards—that the UK Government were broadly unified in their approach to Iraq before the coalition invaded. However, you said that the senior legal adviser to the Foreign Office resigned specifically on the issue of the legality of the invasion. Was it your view at the time that the British Government were broadly united in their policy on the invasion of Iraq?

  Mr Ross: I should preface my answer by saying that I went on sabbatical from the Foreign Office from June 2002. I was studying at a university in New York during the invasion itself. However, I was in close touch with many of my colleagues who were still at the missions in New York and in London. They were personal friends, and we had worked together on the subject for many years. One of the oddities of policy making is that only a small group of people are involved in any particular policy, and there were perhaps five or six of us in the Ministry of Defence and FCO who worked on Iraq and sanctions and weapons of mass destruction issues in the years preceding the invasion. From my personal conversations with them at various moments in this saga, including a long conversation that a group of us had on the way to David Kelly's funeral, I emphatically believe that there was no unity among the officials working on Iraq—that would be an inaccurate way of describing their mood.

  Q36  Sir John Stanley: On a question that I put to Sir Jeremy, should the Foreign Office have been more prescient in recognising what would happen in Iraq once the Ba'athist party dictatorship was removed? Should it have recognised that that would bring out the latent forces in Iraq and produce the sectarian civil war that is now taking place? Are you aware of people in the Foreign Office who predicted that that would happen and that the coalition was wholly unprepared for that eventuality, or did such things simply pass senior officials by?

  Mr Ross: I took part in bilateral discussions between the State Department and the FCO on Iraq for more than four years. Those discussions were quarterly and went through our Iraq policy from alpha to omega. One item that was repeatedly on the agenda was regime change, which, as you know, was the stated policy of the US Administration even during the Clinton years. Whenever that item came up on the agenda, the leader of our delegation, who was usually the director for the middle east, would say, with emphasis, "We do not believe that regime change is a good idea in Iraq and the reason we do not believe that is that we think that Iraq will break up and there will be chaos." That view would have been recorded in the telegrams that people such as me wrote to record those discussions. Those telegrams are, of course, secret and will remain so for many years, but that was emphatically the unified view of the Foreign Office; it was not a minority view of one or two officials, but our official view as put to the US Government on several occasions. That view, of course, changed in mid-2002.

  Q37  Sir John Stanley: Are you saying that it changed in the light of political imperatives, rather than in the light of the accuracy of previous official advice?

  Mr Ross: There was no basis for changing the view in terms of what was going on inside Iraq; what changed, of course, was what our future policy towards Iraq would be.

  Q38  Sir John Stanley: I have just one last question for you. In your strictures about the Committee, you say, "The committee's series of reports on the Iraq war stand as acute evidence of this failure to scrutinise." I assume that you are not criticising the Committee for its lack of attention to the issue, given that there is no other subject to which it has ever given more time or on which it has produced a greater number of reports. Can you elaborate on why you consider that the Committee failed to scrutinise the lead-up to the war in Iraq and the Iraq element of the war on terrorism, if we can still use that phrase?

  Mr Ross: I have surveyed your reports on the Iraq war and watched very closely as you followed things such as the dossier, early versions of which I worked on, and the whole Kelly affair—David Kelly was a friend of mine, so I was acutely interested in that episode. However, reviewing the reports that the Committee has produced, I found that you had not examined the alternatives to war, the policy making in the run-up to the war or the legality of the war in any great detail. There seems to be a great focus on particular aspects of the Iraq issue, including the dossier, which I agree was an important issue, but it is not the only one. For some reason, the Committee, Parliament and, indeed, the press have failed to talk in any detail about the fact that there were available alternatives to the invasion. Those available policies have not been discussed by the Committee or, indeed, by many others. I find that surprising.

  Q39  Mr Hamilton: Does that mean, to follow on from what Sir John said, that you detect some sort of conspiracy and that we deliberately decided that we did not want to challenge the Government's view that invasion was the only alternative, or do you think that it is just a matter of incompetence?

  Mr Ross: I would not say that it is either. I do not know why you did not; it is not for me to speculate. I am just observing that you did not.

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