Thursday, July 15, 2010

UK Ambassador on the Problem with Diplomatic Blogging

Frances Guy is the UK Ambassador to the Republic of Lebanon. She has been in Beirut since October 2006. Her previous jobs include Ambassador to Yemen (2001 -2004) and Head of Engaging with the Islamic World Group (2004 -2006).  Ambassador Guy has also been posted in Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand and France.  Recently, she posted a blog post on Lebanon's recently deceased top Shi'ite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.  Unless you are following UK developments in Lebanon, you may not have heard about her, but for the controversy generated by that blog post that had since been removed.  The British government removed it last week, saying it did not reflect government policy.

Frances Guy HMA Beirut meeting Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah a leading Shia scholar in Lebanon
Photo from FCO/Flicker used under Creative Commons License

Ambassador Guy has now written a public apology in her blog at the FCO Global Conversation page.

The problem with diplomatic blogging is that you risk being anodyne or controversial. Clearly in the last few days I have been the latter. This was not my intent. My comments on the late Sayid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah have now been removed because they were leading to confusion about British policy. I would like to be clear. I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view. I believe that it should be possible for Hizballah to reject violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 1701. This is something I discussed often with Sayid Fadlallah when we met.

The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon's history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need. I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention. I have spent most of my career in the Arab world working to combat terrorism, and the extremism and prejudice which can fuel it. I am sorry that an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sayid Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world. I regret any offence caused.

The Guardian reports that "a Foreign Office spokesman said [...] Guy's post had been removed "after mature consideration". The Guardian piece also speculates that diplomats' personal blogs, which flourished under Hague's digitally aware Labour predecessor, David Miliband, may be more closely vetted in future because of this incident.

Remains to be seen how this is going to play out in William Hague's FCO but Oliver Miles, a former UK ambassador to Greece writes in the Guardian with a call to "Stop the blogging ambassadors," saying that "the immediacy of social media does not lend itself to the measured nature of international diplomacy." Excerpt:
[T]here is a real problem here. Why do diplomats (and Whitaker's article quotes some examples from Americans as well as the British) feel the need to let it all hang out?

The reason is simple. The Miliband regime in the Foreign Office, obsessed with "process", "image", and to be blunt anything trendy, encouraged the idea that running a blog was a good career move. And, of course, a blog of this nature has to be a little bit spicy. Who wants to read the ambassador in South Korea, after attending the great jamboree of ambassadors summoned to London to listen to William Hague, opining that "to hear what the new coalition government expects of the diplomatic service was both helpful and fascinating"?
So why not go all the way with blogs, Twitter, Facebook and no doubt umpteen other forms of social media? Before answering that, we need to consider what ambassadors are for. They are not super-journalists, or super-agony-aunts. Their job is to advise their governments on policy, for which deep understanding of the country in which they work is required, to carry out policy and on occasion to advocate and promote it publicly; and to provide a discreet and reliable channel of communication between governments.
Modern media, like old-fashioned media, can of course be used effectively, and that is part of an ambassador's skill. I think Frances Guy blogging on the subject of a green Queen's birthday party (that's a green birthday party, not a green Queen) got across a few points highlighting the Foreign Office and the Queen's green credentials, possibly as effectively as writing an article in a local newspaper.

But it's a pretty miserable benefit compared with the risks. Leaving aside the trivia, the issues with which ambassadors have to deal are better dealt with penseroso rather than allegro. Blogs by ambassadors were bound to end in tears. Let's hope William Hague will blow the whistle. There is a good Yorkshire saying: Hear all, see all, say now't.

Read the entire Stop the blogging ambassadors here.  Our blog friend, three-times UK ambassador Charles Crawford also has an item here on FCO's ambassadorial blogs.

As an aside, Robert Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, who is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower wrote about the Sheik: 
He was a founder of Da'wa, the Islamic group to which Iraq's current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs. In the 1980s, Fadlallah was at the top of the Reagan Administration's enemy list. The White House mistakenly believed he was the spiritual leader of Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group the U.S. was at war with at the time.
The problem is, there never has been a shred of evidence that Fadlallah was responsible for the Marine bombing, other than his preaching against foreign occupation. But in that sense, he was no different from Lebanon's other Muslim clerics who also did not want foreign troops in the country. Fadlallah was with near certainty not involved in Hizballah's terrorist attacks in Lebanon.
But where we really got Fadlallah wrong was when we started to call him the spiritual leader of Hizballah. That honor belonged exclusively to Ayatullah Khomeini — and now to his successor, Ayatullah Khamenei, in Tehran.
Leaving those meetings, I thought that rather than me, it should be our ambassador in Beirut meeting Fadlallah. But he wasn't allowed to, because Fadlallah was on a terrorism watch list.

Don't get me wrong. Fadlallah was not a friend of the U.S. He preached jihad against the West and created a climate for the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. But at the end of the day, he was an independent Arab voice, a Shi'a Muslim courageous enough to stand up against Iran. In that sense, we should regret his passing.
Read the whole thing here.

So there. As simple or as convoluted an issue as you want it. There is already a call for for Ambassador Guy's head here

Which just shows the perilous thin line diplomats walk in the new social media lane of public engagement -- 

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