Sir Crispin Tickell tells Mary Wakefield that George Bush’s ‘illegal’ war has brought shame on us all
I’m on the telephone, talking to the editor of this magazine, trawling for last-minute background information, when Sir Crispin Tickell, GCMG, KCVO, our former ambassador to the UN, appears in the doorway. He looks alert, beaky, sleek, like a smallish, zoo-kept hawk. ‘Well, his middle name is Cervantes, does that help?’ says the voice in my ear. ‘Sorry!’ I mouth at Sir Crispin.
Cup of tea, Sir Crispin? Coffee? Neither. Since signing the open letter that warned the Prime Minister to ‘see better’ over Iraq and Israel, Sir Crispin has been caught in a flash flood of media requests and must swoop off to Newsnight in half an hour. No time for hot drinks.
Of the 50 former diplomats who signed the open letter, few can claim more capital letters than Sir Crispin. He has served as the Chef de Cabinet to the President of the European Commission, as our Ambassador to Mexico, Permanent Secretary in the Overseas Development Administration, British Permanent Representative to the United Nations and on the UN Security Council. He has been President of the Royal Geographical Society, Warden of Green College, Oxford, and Convenor of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development.
Sir Crispin crosses his legs, folds his arms and looks at me slightly sceptically. ‘What, specifically, would you like to talk about?’ he asks. My eyes slide down his burgundy tie and back again. The letter, I say — what were your personal reasons for signing it?
‘In 1990, when Saddam walked into Kuwait, it fell to me to put together the first resolutions to authorise the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait,’ he says. ‘The resolutions we drafted did not authorise the destruction of Saddam’s regime nor a march on Baghdad. Bush junior acted illegally from the start, as the Secretary General has made perfectly clear. And as he has never had a plan for proper liberation, it looks increasingly like a war of occupation.’
Do you have any idea how government ministers reacted to the letter? Were they nervous, chastened? ‘Apparently the Foreign Secretary said that he was shocked and stunned at the existence of this letter. To which all I can say is that I’m shocked and stunned that he’s shocked and stunned, because it’s such a widely expressed sentiment.’ Sir Crispin looks down and rotates one shiny, brown, buckled loafer: ‘I should tell you that this letter has had astonishing public response. People from all over have been ringing me up and sending me emails saying, “Good on you, keep at it, because we’ve been profoundly uneasy ourselves.” I can’t tell you,’ he looks me in the eye, ‘getting on a train just now, people came up to me and said, “are you, you know…” he pauses modestly — ‘Cervantes?’ I think — “…Sir Crispin?” says Sir Crispin, ‘and when I say yes, they say, “I just wanted to say how much I agree with you.”’
I’m sure he’s right. Even many of us who would rather give up toast and marmalade than vote Labour find Iraq a little difficult. The Tory position on the war is confusing: for it, but seemingly against arguments for it. We need Sir Crispins to voice our anxiety.
‘It’s true the political parties just haven’t done their job — any of them,’ he chuckles beadily. ‘The Conservatives have, frankly, not distinguished themselves in this field, so we concern ourselves with popular opinion. I mean what’s the opposition for except to represent the views of ordinary people? And they haven’t. It’s not just the establishment view, it seems to be everybody’s. Why are we getting people killed in a war which is, in fact, illegal by international standards? An American said to me the other day, “There’s no such thing as international law.” Well all I can say is that as a small vulnerable island, we’re very dependent on it. We ought to be foremost in respecting it.’
Over the last few weeks, I imagine even more people have begun to see things Sir Crispin’s way. After the publication of photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American GIs, the soldiers apparently pleaded ignorance of international law.
‘The West must remember that we are not only characterised in the area as the Great Satan, but we are behaving as if we are the Great Satan,’ says Sir Crispin. ‘And the sad thing is that Britain is not using its influence to restrain America. When I was on the Security Council I sometimes had to sit with my American colleagues for hours saying, “This won’t work and we’re not going to support you.” We just don’t do that any more. Bush used Blair to persuade liberal America that war with Iraq was the civilised, right-thinking thing to do, but Britain gets nothing out of it. What’s the point of this special relationship if every time it comes to a disagreement, we give way?’
Sir Crispin leans forward. He seems engaged now, round blue eyes earnest, large hands clasped in front of him. Why, I ask him, is the current administration in Washington so cavalier about foreign policy? ‘I think it is impossible to overestimate the neoconservatives’ ignorance of the real world,’ he says. ‘Have you ever had a discussion with any of those people? It’s unbelievable. Profoundly discouraging, I can tell you. You have to go back absolutely to basics. The world they live in is not the world that you and I live in.’
There is a pause while I feel pleased at being included in Sir Crispin’s world. He continues, ‘And of course all this is even more true about Palestine. A lot of things are slipping. Where is the reference to the future state of Jerusalem? Where are we talking about returning to 1967 boundaries? We all know these boundaries are not sacrosanct but the idea that we could authorise the continuation of these settlements on someone else’s land as a price for getting them out of Gaza seems to me to be the sort of deal with which we should have absolutely nothing to do. It is also said that Bush gave Blair no warning of his decision, which makes it worse. In fact, that was why we wrote the letter. That was really the tipping point.’
So what do you think motivates George Bush to behave this way about Israel?
‘You can never underestimate the importance of the Jewish vote.’ Sir Crispin clasps his hands and looks shrewd. ‘It is also said that Sharon would not have gone to Washington if he hadn’t had some assurance that his view would prevail. But the result is that we, Britain, all look jelly-kneed in the middle of it. Look,’ he says, ‘the last time I felt this strongly about a field of foreign policy was Suez. I very nearly resigned from the foreign service in 1956, but I was reassured and persuaded that it would be all right on the day by my ambassador at the time. In fact he was wrong and I was right, but it took a long time for this to emerge. At the present time we all have a duty as citizens to make what we think clear. And to see all those blunders taking place again is humiliating.’ I nod vigorously. Sir Crispin looks at his watch and makes as if to get up, then stops and says, ‘I was in Hong Kong recently when an Indian friend of mine made a remark that I keep returning to. I think it’s important. He turned to me and said with great feeling, “Many people say that we should resent President Bush, but I feel more than that. I feel that he has declared war on me.”’