x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Britain's top diplomat, squeezed by clichés in Benghazi

The British foreign secretary seems uncertain how to proceed as far as Libya is concerned.

Somebody once defined the art of diplomacy as saying "good doggie" until you can find a rock.

It's a maxim that will have been much on the mind of UK Foreign Secretary William Hague this week. For the doggie, read Libya. Or rather, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

For years Col Qaddafi's regime was regarded with barely-disguised hostility by the British government. Then came its return to the embrace of the civilised world, as signalled by former Prime Minister Tony Blair's eye-catching embrace of the Libyan leader in 2004. And yet now, the regime has been re-labelled from man's best friend back into slavering rottweiler. No wonder Mr Hague seems uncertain quite how to proceed.

When you're not endlessly crisscrossing the globe on jet aeroplanes, you're sitting in sterile conference rooms being photographed shaking hands with foreign leaders whose names you can hardly pronounce, all the while having to plaster an all-purpose rictus grin across your features while you await to hear whether they are going to agree with you or not.

But Mr Hague has had a particularly rough time of it in recent weeks. First came his pronouncement during the early days of the Libyan unrest that Col Qaddafi may have fled to Venezuela (a statement firmly scotched when the man himself popped up in a golf buggy back in Tripoli). This was soon followed by a stuttering evacuation of UK citizens, one in which both the venture itself and the planes hired to facilitate it proved slow to get off the ground.

And suddenly Mr Hague's ministry seemed not so much populated by seasoned politicians as the Keystone Kops.

But the nadir of his political misadventures still lay ahead of him. Last week a top-secret mission involving the SAS, Britain's elite fighting force and the jewel in the UK's military crown, was captured by opposition rebels near their stronghold of Benghazi while attempting a daring, and seemingly pointless, night-time sortie.

When the news of their arrest broke to an incredulous British press, poor Mr Hague was forced to admit that he had indeed authorised the initiative.

Mr Hague did his best to cover his embarrassment in the fig leaf of diplomatic language, insisting there had been a communications breakdown. But Douglas Alexander, his opposite number on the Labour Party benches, lost no time in asking why the diplomats in question hadn't just been ordered to do what hundreds of foreign journalists happily managed: to proceed to Benghazi by civilian plane and taxi.

"The British public are entitled to wonder," pondered a gleeful Mr Alexander, "whether, if some new neighbours moved into the Foreign Secretary's street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell or, instead, choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night".

As if this isn't enough, Mr Hague now has the unenviable job of trying to persuade a whole raft of sceptical international leaders to climb on board Prime Minister David Cameron's proposed "no-fly zone" over the Libyan mainland, an initiative which already seems stranded on its own runway. Given all this, perhaps it's no surprise that some commentators have suggested Mr Hague may be losing his "mojo".

After all, this former Tory leader has been in politics a long time, much of it on the losing side. No wonder he appears distinctly world-weary. Once you lose your appetite for political life, there's little to recommend it.

Indeed, when questioned this week as to his suspected waning enthusiasm, Mr Hague's reply was distinctly underwhelming. Instead of mounting a passionate defence of his post, he talked gloomily of shouldering "the heavy burdens through an extended period of time". Hardly Henry V on the eve of Agincourt.

But perhaps Mr Hague knows something the rest of us don't. Whatever the pros and cons of the current stalemate in Libya, the decision to intervene militarily is one that can not be taken lightly, and he could be forgiven if he looks less than enthusiastic for the task ahead.

It was a previous giant of UK politics, Harold Macmillan, who once said that a foreign secretary is forever poised between a cliché and an indiscretion. Poor Mr Hague seems to be managing to do both at the same time.


Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London