Why we must replace our diplomats with poker players

16/08/2011 12:52 BST | Updated 16/10/2011 10:12 BST

It is a cliché that people in positions of power lie. And powerful people believe the lies others tell them because it serves their own agenda, or it is less effort in the short-term to accept falsehood.

But when our politicians believe powerful foreign liars with a track record of lying, bad things, like the Second World War, can happen.

This is not just a matter of historical interest, but a problem that is costing lives each day this summer. Right now thousands of African civilians in Sudan are being killed because our representatives choose to believe the brutal serial liars who rule Sudan, rather than our own satellite pictures of freshly-dug mass graves, available at

Sadly, the betrayal of Sudan is part of a pattern. Throughout the Bosnian war a series of worldly, sophisticated British politicians (Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Carrington, David Owen) swallowed the lies they were fed by Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzjic and Ratko Mladic. The Serbs signed peace agreements and made promises which they broke almost immediately. And yet 'our' side returned to the negotiating table time and again, made to look foolish and gullible by the Serbs. The west's seasoned statesmen allowed the Serbs to manipulate and humiliate them; none suggested imposing consequences on the Serbs for breaking their word repeatedly (1). Hence the war dragged on and innocent civilians paid the price in their thousands. One is reminded of Einstein's definition of insanity: repeating the same actions expecting a different outcome.

In the case of Douglas Hurd, he had good reason to stay friendly with Milosevic: on leaving office Hurd worked for Nat West Markets, giving lucrative advice on privatising Serbia's telecoms utility.

Does anyone think Tony Blair and Colin Powell really believed the fanciful security briefings on Iraq's military capability? Will the Chilcot report have the courage to conclude that Blair and Powell wanted to justify a course of action already determined by those who really wielded power (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld)? And will history view this pretext in the same way as Hitler's Reichstag fire, and Lyndon Johnson's Gulf Tonkin resolution?

A current mass murderer in the Milosevic mould is Field Marshall Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. In his years of negotiations with western envoys he has clearly borne Machiavelli is mind: "Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception."

The week after I visited the Darfur refugee camps in 2004, hearing dozens of accounts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Tony Blair met Bashir in Khartoum and came away with a four point plan, signed by the Field Marshall. Bashir was breaking his own promises by the time Blair's plane was 'wheels up'. Yet, if anyone on Blair's staff had bothered to check, they would have found that Bashir had been signing peace deals and making similar promises for years.

It is clear from Blair's autobiography that he sees himself as a masterful salesman whose brilliance and charm can persuade anyone of anything. Yet, like so many salesmen, he is strangely susceptible to being stung. In the event he was flattered by Bashir, a wilier deceiver and survivor, it turns out.

Sadly for the long-suffering Sudanese, Scott Gration, the former White House envoy, believed that Bashir would respond to rational argument and appeals to his decency. Never mind that the man has been waging war on the non-Arab peoples of Sudan for twenty years, at the cost of well over two million lives. Gration also assumed Bashir had the best interests of his people at heart, like Gary Cooper's sheriff in High Noon.

As if visiting from another planet, Obama's envoy wanted to reward Bashir, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide, for promising he would stop killing his own citizens (n.b. promising to stop, rather than actually stopping). Predictably, Bashir and his proxies continue the slaughter.

What can explain this child-like ignorance of human nature? Do our leaders lead such privileged and insulated lives, in the bubble of the ruling elite, that their antenna cease to function? Or do these narcissists believe that they, personally and uniquely, can change the world's scoundrels?

The current US envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, has dismissed the accounts from UN and Human Rights Watch observers in South Kordofan where the Nuba people are being hunted like animals by Khartoum's helicopter gunships. Lyman has ignored the Sentinel Satellite photos showing freshly dug mass graves, preferring to give Field Marshall Bashir the benefit of the doubt, even as the Sudan peace process collapses around his ears.

Appeasing the playground bully is never the answer. If there are no consequences for breaking international law and conventions, then the likes of Bashir are emboldened to carry on killing. Smart sanctions, carefully targeted on the finances of Bashir and his cronies, will be more effective than the 'cookies and gold stars' that Gration suggested giving them. Ironically, the UN Security Council approved a raft of such sanctions several years ago: how many more mass graves do we need before we enforce them?