Cameron hijacks SAS rescue for political gain
Crispin Black: This was no ‘Raid on Entebbe’ - but a handy excuse to bury a bad week for the coalition
Nearly all of us derive considerable comfort and confidence in the knowledge that if we are hijacked, kidnapped or trapped in a war zone our universally admired Special Forces will try, if it is at all possible, to get us to safety. It is one of the few remaining advantages of being a British subject.
The extraordinary and well-earned totemic power of the SAS and SBS brand means that politicians are keen to be associated with it to bathe in its reflected glory.
After the deep defence cuts of the mid-1990s Michael Portillo, then defence secretary, tried to bolster the Conservatives' flagging claims to competence in defence matters by his boasting 'Who Dares Wins' in his speech to the party conference in 1995.
Today the coalition government seems to be trying the same scam by over-spinning the repatriation of British oil workers from Libya over the weekend.
The 'Daring SAS Rescue' headline is putting it a bit strongly although all the Sunday papers took the bait breathlessly. What actually took place in the Libyan desert south of Benghazi on Saturday has a much more mundane and less glamorous name a services assisted evacuation.
Yes, special forces were there and the Hercules transport aircraft were ones specially adapted for their use. But there was no prospect of Libyan military opposition. The oil workers were not being held hostage and Colonel Gaddafi's henchmen appear to have little reach into the desert of eastern Libya. The only threat to the operation, the air defences around Benghazi itself, were either inoperable or in friendly hands.
One of those rescued described the atmosphere as 'relaxed'. Quite. Yet what was a near to routine operation has been hyped by the coalition government into a kind of 'Raid on Entebbe' the brilliant hostage rescue mounted by the Israelis in Uganda in 1976. It's a good way to bury a week of bad news.
The government has a duty to protect our citizens abroad (even when they do not pay British taxes, as is the case with most British expats in Libya) and they were right to get our people out. But there is an uncomfortable sense that the rescue has been turned into a convenient political stunt.
This sense is reinforced by Defence Secretary Liam Fox's obviously pre-prepared and cynical exploitation of it to justify the recent defence review - just when everyone else is having doubts.
There is another give-away: Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, previously famous for James Naughtie's unfortunate spoonerism on the Today programme, gave away on live radio on Thursday that the SAS were preparing for action.
Really dangerous military operations do not usually involve culture secretaries. Where operational security is paramount the circle of knowledge is kept limited the prime minister, a couple of senior ministers, the top spooks and the top generals. Possibly, if the decisions and briefings can be made before three o'clock in the afternoon and he is not away skiing, even the deputy prime minister.
The spinners hope that the Prime Minister's travelling arms bazaar, the Foreign Secretary's difficulties with charter flights, and a defence review which looks increasingly wrong-headed will not be the voters' lasting impressions of the government's response to the Libyan crisis. Instead, we will fall for 'echoes of Entebbe'.
As parliament attempts to hold Cameron and his ministers to account this week, expect them to fold themselves ever more vigorously in its protective embrace.
The hostages held at Entebbe in 1976, including 30 Britons, were fortunate that the operation was controlled by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and defence secretary Shimon Peres men of great stature and military experience.
In the 1976 film Victory at Entebbe, Rabin was played by Anthony Hopkins and Peres, in a splendid cameo, by the late and much lamented Burt Lancaster. That's the way David Cameron and Liam Fox want you to see them. Fat chance. ·
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