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Loose lips can sink ships of diplomacy

Foreign ministers' slip-ups can have serious repercussions. And the jokes would be on us.

If you've ever felt nervous before delivering a speech to a high-powered audience, then spare a thought for India's foreign minister. He stood up to address the Security Council at the United Nations, but instead of giving his own speech, he read out the notes of the Portuguese minister. An Indian official had to stop him as he read out statements of pleasure at seeing other Portuguese speaking officials in the audience. Oh dear.

Ordinary folks like me might be forgiven for thinking that the role of foreign minister is only ever occupied by those of the highest professional standards, and who have somehow been immunised from embarrassing gaffes. Not so. Reading out the wrong speech might have left the individual a little red-faced and provoked giggles from the audience. But it's not uncommon for slip-ups to have more serious repercussions.

Jack Straw, during his tenure as foreign secretary of the UK, was infamously photographed shaking hands with Robert Mugabe. He claimed that although he had previously worn glasses, he had just started wearing contact lenses, and through his blurry vision had failed to identify the Zimbabwean president in time.

Of course ministers can and will get in a pickle and do embarrassing things. The trick is to ensure you have a credible excuse that explains it away without compounding the shame.

This week, the UK's foreign secretary, William Hague, has failed to do exactly that. There must have been a lot of burning cheeks and nervous laughter at the failure of the James Bond-style SAS mission that was authorised to go into Libya. Eight operatives, at least six of them from the SAS, were dropped by helicopter near Benghazi at 3am, and suspicious local rebels took them prisoner. The irony is that the rebels suggested that there was no need for subterfuge, and the British would have been allowed entry to the east of Libya - all they had to do was ask.

So what is Mr Hague's excuse for the macho mission? Er, it wasn't my fault; it was the military. If you're going to pick someone to blame, Billy-boy, I wouldn't pick the guys with the tanks.

You might find these incidents to be the funny side of diplomacy. But poor judgement in the international arena can have serious consequences.

France's foreign minister offered Tunisia help in restoring order shortly before the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In simple terms, France was advising on how to put down the protests. Definitely on the wrong side of history.

As the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair is a foreign minister of sorts. His words with regard to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were so ludicrous that one might be forgiven for thinking he himself was having a go at satire. In February, as the Egyptian protests began to gather momentum, Mr Blair said with a straight face that the Egyptian president was "immensely courageous and a force for good". If the consequence of his words wasn't so deadly serious, it would have been funny.

Foreign ministers hold a high degree of responsibility for peace between nations. Their errors are funny exactly because of the contrast between the stupidity of some of their actions and the high pressure stakes under which they operate. When their actions remain on the side of humour instead of crossing the line into horror, then we feel safe to chuckle, as we have at the French and the British in the past few weeks. But if things had gone wrong in Tunisia or Egypt, I don't think any of us would have been laughing then.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk

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