Thursday Book Review, The Independent. 18 Feb 1999.
The Arthur Daleys of diplomacy
by Hugh O’Shaughnessy
HOW DARE they! I have scarcely recovered from the misery of reading This Blessed Plot, Hugo Young’s account of Britain’s calamitous international relations since the Second World War, when Paul Lashmar and James Oliver present an equally absorbing, depressing and well-written work.
Young’s book sets out in masterly detail the monstrous incompetence of recent British politicians and civil servants. He tells how these people guided the country down wrong roads and up blind alleys, seeking to superannuate the Empire at one moment, depending on the Commonwealth the next, truckling to Washington thereafter, but always turning up their fastidious Kiplingesque noses at our Continental neighbours. How was it that a British establishment – so well paid and so splendidly honoured – played out such a ridiculous pantomime? How could it have continued superciliously spurning the European future, leaving our country isolated on the margins of the European Union, potentially the greatest economic power the world has yet seen?
Paul Lashmar, one of Britain’s foremost investigative journalists, and the historian James Oliver have produced a fascinating and authoritative study of one agency of state – the Information Research Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – which was responsible for more than its fair share of such strategic blunders. This is a sad tale, splendidly told. Created in 1948 and funded from the clandestine budget of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, the IRD had as its not ignoble task the campaign against Communist influence outside this kingdom, and the battle for worldwide public acceptance of British strategic aims.
One of its most important operations, which proved to be one of the last independent actions of global significance by British intelligence, was its assistance in the overthrow in 1965 of President Sukarno of Indonesia, whose troops had been seeking to destabilise Malaysia. The operation, one could argue, had its justification. But did the IRD know that his successor, General Suharto, was to preside over the immediate massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians? It probably did. After all, the US, our Nato ally and junior partner in the campaign against Sukarno, passed on to Soeharto’s army the names of thousands of left-wingers.
As these people were killed by the army, their names were crossed off a list at the US embassy in Jakarta. In that city running with human blood, the diplomat Robert J Mertens said “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.” Did the IRD know that Suharto would go on to slaughter a third of the population of occupied East Timor, plunder Timor’s oil and, in our day, cause the almost fatal weakening of the economy of South-East Asia? Probably not. But members of the department can never evade responsibility for helping to put him there in the first place.
The department was, however, always the Arthur Daley of the British diplomatic world, staffed with people disdained by their colleagues as less than high-fliers. The IRD ended up deserting its official brief and peddling smears against a British prime minister and half-truths to its allies in the British press about what was going on in Northern Ireland. Just before Dr David Owen closed it down in 1976, the department was asked to prepare a broad philosophical briefing for the Labour government.
As the white terrorist government in Pretoria was beating up or murdering those black activists it was not locking up on Robben Island, the hapless IRD produced a document entitled “South Africa: the Communist Peril”. In Latin America, IRD tried to seek intellectual acceptance for its right- wing views but was hampered by the quality of the staff it employed (or shared with the CIA).
One thinks of the troubled Australian, Robert Moss, author of Chile’s Marxist Experiment – a book rushed out to support Augusto Pinochet within 10 weeks of his 1973 putsch and which formed part of a series portentously entitled “World Realities”. Moss, say the authors, had visited Chile, then under the disorderly but democratically elected government of Dr Salvador Allende, at the expense of Forum World Features, a CIA operation based in London. The department used to send me its briefings on Latin America – attributably and, like direct-mail condoms, always under plain cover, never franked and always bearing an adhesive stamp. I was constantly struck by the oddity of their arguments and the paucity of their supposedly “privileged” information. The briefings never contained anything that could not be gleaned from a reading of the daily newspapers in any Latin American capital.