Carne Ross: Why I Left the Foreign Service

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Carne Ross

Photo Credit: Dale Robbins

In this excerpt from The Leaderless Revolution, Carne Ross explains how he came to the decision to resign his post in the UK Foreign Office and why he thinks governments are undermining our society by taking responsibility away from individuals.

I had been in the foreign service some nine years by the time I was posted to the British Mission to the United Nations in New York. By then I was deeply steeped in the culture and mind-habits of my institution. Many of my friends were in the Foreign Office. The “office,” as we called it, was a kind of brother- and sisterhood: All over the world there were co-members with whom I shared a common language and experience. I had experienced with them excitement and boredom, from the corridors of the United Nations to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. I was with them as they wept the frustrations of negotiations, and as gunfire crackled on the streets of Pristina. They have been at my side in Hebron and Dresden, Oslo and Islamabad. With them, I watched wars begin and end, wrote and argued international law, and shared the many joys and miseries of a life lived in the glamour of overseas embassies, of high-level meetings and the dinginess of Whitehall offices. It was not an ordinary job.

'The Leaderless Revolution' book jacketAnd my job in New York was not ordinary either. I was to be the head of the Middle East section at the British Mission to the UN. It was an exciting and challenging task. My responsibilities covered the Arab-Israel dispute, the 1988 Lockerbie bombing by Libyan agents, and the long-standing and unresolved injustice of Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara. But my primary responsibility was Iraq — ensuring its disarmament and containment after the 1990 war, and the sanctions agreed at the UN Security Council to effect these goals. For Britain at the UN in those days, there was no more important task, and it was my responsibility. In the early days of my posting, I was so excited by the prospect of my work that I would whoop with joy as water poured over me in my morning shower.

One central part of my job was to maintain the UN Security Council’s support of restrictive economic sanctions against Iraq. When first told of this task, I relished it. I had no question that the sanctions were justified. Their purpose was, after all, to punish and contain that most evil and lawless of dictators, Saddam Hussein. When briefed in London before my posting, however, the first doubts began to assert themselves. Sanctions on Iraq had been imposed, I naively thought, because Iraq had not disarmed itself of its infamous “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), in this case defined as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic missiles with a range of over 150 kilometers. This failure presented a clear case for the maintenance of sanctions. However, when I asked one of my briefing officers in London whether the UK believed Iraq maintained significant stocks of WMD, he looked a little sheepish. “Not really,” he replied. How, then, do we justify sanctions, I asked, trying to contain my astonishment. He replied, on the basis that Iraq had failed to answer multiple questions about the destruction of its earlier stocks. In summary, sanctions were in place because Iraq had not correctly answered questions.

By the end of 1997, when I joined the mission, British and American policy at the UN Security Council was under severe pressure. Iraq’s allies on the council, particularly France and Russia, were arguing for an easing of sanctions on the grounds that Iraq had complied fully with its obligations, following the Gulf War cease-fire, to disarm completely of its nuclear program, chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles. The UN weapons inspectors were, however, clearly saying that this was not the case, and that there remained many unresolved issues about Iraq’s WMD. We, the U.S. and the UK, deployed these unresolved issues to argue support for sanctions — what had happened to all the missiles Iraq had imported? Why the discrepancy between chemical bombs produced and those verifiably destroyed? Et cetera, et cetera. Sanctions, we argued with great vigor, were necessary to force Iraq to disarm, fully and verifiably, as it had demonstrably not yet done. It was a tough diplomatic fight, not helped by the absence of hard evidence.

Though opponents of sanctions argued that they were unjustified and caused immense human suffering in Iraq, our counter arguments were plausible: Iraq had failed on numerous occasions to cooperate fully with the weapons inspectors, leaving important questions unanswered; Saddam Hussein obstructed the operation of the UN’s oil-for-food program, which was designed to lessen the humanitarian suffering.

It was my job to cull and collate the innumerable statistics, reports and testimonies in support of this latter version of the story and to deploy them in speeches and debates in the Security Council. On the other side of the table, the diplomats opposing sanctions — led by Russia and France — could cite myriad reports detailing the suffering under the sanctions regime and the inequities of the oil-for-food program.

It was, of course, a complex story that we managed to divide into two distinct and opposing narratives. The atmosphere between the delegations on the Security Council was aggressive and adversarial, as it remained until — and after — the 2003 invasion. Political divisions were allowed to degenerate into personal animosities. The council, its chambers and corridors became a diplomatic battle zone where the more we fought, the more we entrenched our positions into competing blacks and whites. Thus were we able to obscure the deeper truth.

Governments and their officials can compose convincing versions of the truth, filled with more or less verifiable facts, and yet be entirely wrong. I did not make up lies about Hussein’s smuggling or obstruction of the UN’s humanitarian program. The speeches I drafted for my ambassador to deliver to the Security Council and my telegrams back to London were composed of facts filtered from the stacks of reports and intelligence that daily hit my desk. As I read these reports, facts and judgments that contradicted “our” version of events would fade into nothingness. Facts that reinforced our narrative would stand out to me as if highlighted, to be later deployed by me, my ambassador and my ministers, like hand grenades in the diplomatic trench warfare. Details in otherwise complicated reports would be extracted to be telegraphed back to London, where they would be inserted into ministerial briefings or press articles. A complicated picture was reduced to a selection of facts that became factoids, such as the suggestion that Saddam Hussein imported huge quantities of whiskey or built a dozen palaces, validated by constant repetition: true, but not the whole truth.

In the end, it became clear even to us that comprehensive sanctions were counterproductive. They targeted the wrong group of people, and their effects undermined the necessary international support for the containment of the Saddam regime. This reality slowly percolated into our small policy-making group, and eventually led to a change in policy. As the century turned, the U.S. and the UK initiated a shift in Security Council policy toward what became known as “smart sanctions” — whereby Iraq could import all civilian goods except those with potential military application: so-called dual-use goods. But by then, the damage had been done.

That damage has been more fully revealed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. One assumption of those planning that war was that Iraq’s middle class would quickly recover from Saddam’s removal, and the economy would rapidly thrive. That assumption quickly met the brute force of the reality that there was no longer an Iraqi middle class, and no economy to speak of. Iraq’s non-oil economy had been more or less completely destroyed by the dozen years of sanctions that I, and others, had helped enforce. Anyone with the chance — mostly the educated and professional classes — had left. Within a year of the imposition of sanctions, Iraq’s GDP had dropped by about three-quarters of its 1990 value to approximately that of the 1940s. By 1996, one million children under five were malnourished. In a country that had been cholera free, by 1994 there were 1,344 cases per 100,000 people. Even after the oil-for-food program came into operation, water treatment plants lacked the proper spare parts and maintenance; there were extended power cuts. The population had no choice but to obtain water directly from contaminated rivers, resulting in turn in massive increases in water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Though the statistics are debated still, and data from Iraq during this period are unreliable, a recent and thorough academic history of the sanctions era concludes from a review of epidemiological studies that for the period from 1990 to 2003, there was an “excess mortality rate” of more than 500,000 for children under five. In other words, half a million children died. Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this is what I did.

I have no way to assuage the shame I feel when I contemplate this episode. I was aware of the reports of humanitarian suffering, but I did little about them. In discussion within my ministry, I may have occasionally argued for easing the effects of comprehensive sanctions. But if I did, I suspect that I argued the political grounds for such a shift — the loss of support for our policies — rather than the urgent moral and humanitarian arguments. In our ministry’s culture, it was often deemed “emotional” or “immature” to burden arguments with moral sentiment. Real diplomats were cold-eyed and hardheaded, immune to the arguments of liberal protesters, journalists and other softheads who did not understand how the “real world” worked.

For years afterward, I wondered how this might have happened. Why did we permit this? Or rather, the actual, direct but more uncomfortable question: Why did I do this? My colleagues and I were decent people, or so I preferred to think. Likewise, my ministers and officials who endorsed the policy and defended it in Parliament and before an increasingly critical press. It was this very decency that helped still my doubts, that persuaded me that we could not have been doing wrong. Later, in recounting this story, my former colleagues or friends would say, “You were doing what you were told,” implying thereby that I bore no guilt and, needless to say, that they bore none either.

And as in all institutions unscrutinized from outside, the hold of “groupthink” was a firm one upon our little group of policy makers — no more than half a dozen or so people in the British government, a few more in the U.S. We reassured one another that we were doing the right thing. Our arguments sounded all the better the more we rehearsed them to one another.

The comfortable succor of my institution, in this case the British Foreign Office, allowed me to ignore the dictates of my own conscience.

It takes little imagination to see how, to varying degrees, it is a problem intrinsic to any system where people feel dissociated from the consequences of their actions — where they feel that someone else, not them, is really in control. Thus, the ultimate paradox of government, however well-meaning in intent, is revealed. The more government seeks to act to tackle particular problems, the less individuals are likely to feel responsible for them. Whatever is legal is thus rendered morally permissible.

Evidence for this is all around us in the decaying standards of public behavior in many realms, from the shameless greed of Wall Street bankers, to the brutality and exploitation perpetuated in the anonymity of the World Wide Web, to the thuggish antics to be witnessed on public transportation.

The answer is obvious. Confront individuals with the consequences of their actions. Restore the moral understanding that each of us is responsible for the world as it is, and for each other.


The Leaderless Revolution © 2011 by Carne Ross
Reprinted courtesy of Blue Rider Press/Penguin USA

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  • GradyLeeHoward

    I admire your fortitude and your taking of your share of blame for the suffering of innocent
    people in Iraq under the sanctions, and how you and your colleagues enabled the run-up to war in 2003 by failure to clarify the actual WMD situation. It is as though you have done your part for “truth and reconciliation” independently, guided by your recovered conscience. Robert McNamara made similar admissions in Errol Morris’s Fog of War, but you have done more at a much younger age to invite the public inside diplomacy to see some of the possible shortcomings. Thanks for sharing this important book chapter gratis with Moyers’ viewers.

  • Sufidialogue

    I admire your courage and humility to admit your role, and hope you are doing something to prevent the same fate for Iran or Pakistan or whichever next Muslim country is the next target.