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Why is Britain Tolerating David Miliband?

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David Miliband is like lightning. The British foreign secretary is unlikely to revisit the same place twice. Clearly, no self-respecting national leader is going to invite him back to their country.

Not that he’s winning the popularity sweepstakes in Britain – there, Millipede, as some sections of the press call him, is regarded as a covetous courtier who wants to unseat UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. However, what he’s doing abroad is what Whitehall should be worried about. Internationally, Miliband has been stumbling from one diplomatic disaster to another, with reckless statements and acts that are totally unbecoming of a diplomat.

One would expect that a British leader visiting India, weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks, would be properly briefed by their Foreign Office about India's sensitivities. Either that briefing never took place or Miliband strayed from the script, and launched himself into the centre of a diplomatic storm.

He told an audience at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel, Ground Zero of 26/11, that Pakistan had no hand in planning the commando-style terror operation. Coming days after his article in The Guardian, saying that India's conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir was aiding Islamist terror groups in their recruitment, this was clearly junior school diplomacy at its worst. Using farcically expedient arguments, he had written, "Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main call to arms."

It appears Miliband is ignoring his own intelligence dossiers that Pakistani terrorist outfits are not Kashmir-centric but are in fact pan-Islamic in nature, having sleeper cells in places such as the US, Australia, Indonesia, and his own UK. And that's not including all the usual places.

In New Delhi his "condescending" attitude towards Indian ministers contributed to what the opposition BJP described as a "diplomatic disaster". A senior Indian bureaucrat left little doubt about India's anger at Miliband. "He did not come across as the foreign minister of a friendly nation," he told the media. He criticised Miliband's "attention span" and "loud focus" on sensitive issues.

The 43-year-old Miliband's demeanour towards older Indian ministers was also shocking. According to the Financial Times, in a society deferential toward elders, the UK minister repeatedly addressed Pranab Mukherjee, India's septuagenarian foreign minister, by his first name while Mukherjee scrupulously addressed his younger counterpart as "Your Excellency", or "Mr Miliband".

A senior Indian bureaucrat confirmed a local newspaper report that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had taken the unprecedented step of writing to his UK counterpart to protest about Miliband's behaviour.

"He was totally tactless," said Arundhati Ghose, India's former ambassador to the United Nations. "It was so familiar that it is almost condescending."

Miliband's imperial aloofness sits uneasily on his emaciated frame – an apt symbol of his country's diminished global status. Britain today has little military firepower, and economically it's not a major league player any more.

Miliband would do well to ponder some wise advice from a great predecessor. Lord Salisbury, foreign secretary and prime minister in the days of the British Empire, dispensed immense global power, but that did not mean that he liked playing about with that power.

Faced with proposals for British policy that he understood to be deeply damaging to the interests of other great powers, Salisbury would look his colleagues in the eye and ask simply: "Are you really prepared to fight? If not, do not embark on this policy."

Miliband is notorious in Europe as a foreign secretary with a penchant for tilting at windmills, shooting his mouth off, and trying to revisit the Great Game against Russia.

His dash to Ukraine last August, at the height of the Russia-Georgia war, was described as "dangerous and irresponsible grandstanding" by The Guardian. "By going to Kiev to send Russia a signal that Moscow will not be allowed to have a veto over Ukraine joining Nato, Miliband is stepping blindly and foolishly into a minefield," the paper said.

"The British foreign secretary seems to be making vacuous commitments to a country he knows nothing about, and which he is in no position to honour." Miliband's posturing in Kiev about building a "coalition against Russian aggression" clearly looked foolish.

That wasn't the only time the foreign secretary embarrassed his European allies. His expressions of solidarity with the Georgian thug, Mikhail Shakashvili, made many Europeans uneasy.

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer.
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