SAS bungle: Cameron and Hague are incompetent

Mar 8, 2011
Crispin Black

Crispin Black: How British foreign policy is not in safe hands - and why does the PM keep passing the buck?

The botched 'diplomatic' mission to Libya in which a group of MI6 and SAS personnel were captured by anti-Gaddafi militia men outside Benghazi on Saturday night is like one of those moments of creeping realisation in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

You want to believe that everything will be okay, but it's beginning to dawn on you that the manager of the Bates Motel is not quite as obliging as you had previously thought.

Sadly, despite high hopes, it is beginning to dawn on even its strongest supporters that the current government is not impressive in an international crisis. At least the triumvirate that run foreign and defence policy - the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary - don't seem to be very good at it. Why should this be?

Their backgrounds don't inspire much confidence. It is hard to think of a less sensible arrangement than to have the three key national security appointments held respectively by a former head of PR for a minor television channel (Cameron), a former McKinsey consultant (Hague) and a former provincial GP (Fox).

None of the men has a single day of military service between them. None of them has ever run anything in the real world. Being prime minister or a senior minister has become an entry-level job ­ and it shows. There is a school of thought that the qualities and virtues required to get elected to high office are antipathetic to the qualities required to govern.

Many of his critics say this about President Obama. Good at elections but bad at governing. The danger for David Cameron is that it is starting to look as if he may not be very good at either.

There is another unsettling aspect that hardly promotes efficiency.
Throughout Monday afternoon "Whitehall sources" were making it clear that William Hague authorised the mission "personally".

It is fair that the Foreign Office should bear greatest responsibility for the cock up: if our ambassador in Tripoli can make a telephone call to get the diplomatic party 'out' why could he not have made the same telephone call a little earlier to get them 'in'?

Hague dutifully and loyally took the blame in the House of Commons. But the mission certainly wasn't his decision. Special Forces operational deployments both at home and abroad are always authorised by the prime minister.

There is a sense with Cameron that if things go wrong it's someone else's fault. Most prime ministers eventually behave like this when the 'bunker mentality' takes over, but Cameron has been in office for less than a year.

The command and control shortcomings of a clique of professional politicians won't surprise weary British voters but they should be disturbed by what the "serious misunderstanding" in Benghazi tells us about our moral standing in the world.

Forget about the cock-up aspects and the flimsy cover story produced by Hague in the Commons. Look at what actually happened on the ground.

The United Kingdom offered the anti-Gaddafi leadership the help of both the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Special Air Service ­ organisations highly admired in the UK and much of the world. The SAS in particular remains (rightly) the beau ideal of the British military and a benchmark for nearly every nation's special forces.

To us in the UK these organisations remain talismanic ­ symbols of our national virtue and prowess. Jolly decent of us to send them in.

But as every free Libyan now knows, some former MI6 agents appear to have profited handsomely from our rapprochement with Gaddafi in 2004 - and the SAS were sent to train his brutal security forces.

To the Libyan rebels, they are toxic symbols of the UK's greed and double standards. No wonder the rebels said no thanks - and, by the way, could you leave the country.

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