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Monday, March 07, 2011 

Every farce needs a great tagline.

There's something reaffirming about the fiasco involving (apparently) the Special Air Service, either one or two MI6 officers and the foreign minister left to carry the can. Despite our many competitors, one thing we've always been best at is farce, right through from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Fawlty Towers and Four Lions. Along the way we've also displayed a wonderful aptitude for military disasters that would border on the comic if it wasn't for the often horrendous loss of life, which we've also occasionally managed to turn into tragic heroism: one thinks of General Gordon's last stand in Khartoum, the Elphinstone march to Jalalabad, Dunkirk, Suez and especially pertinently the operation which became known as Bravo Two Zero.

We shouldn't then immediately dismiss completely out of hand the possibility that what even some journalists have referred to mockingly as the "official story" regarding the disastrous foray into Libya to apparently meet the opposition based around Benghazi is something approaching an accurate account of what happened. Certainly, we haven't had anything approaching a blow by blow outline of what did occur, but then we were never going to get close to one. We don't even know properly when they went in: the Guardian is now reporting that the group was held under house arrest for four days, indicating they either went in late on Wednesday or early on Thursday, being picked up shortly afterwards. This is a day later than suggested by the first reports, which claimed they had set down around 24:00 on the Thursday.

If we are to believe the official story though, then the general incompetence is pretty extraordinary. We have to accept that at the point that the mission was authorised, Hague and friends were apparently completely unaware all they apparently needed to do was to make contact with the courthouse in Benghazi, where the opposition has made their temporary home. HMS Cumberland is, as Hague has accepted, berthed only two miles from there. Even in the worst case scenario, with the "health and safety" precautions apparently requiring that diplomats entering potentially hostile territory require armed backup in case things go awry, they could have let it be known they intended to dock in the harbour and take it from there. Hague even supposedly informed a former interior minister, Abdel Fatah Yunes, of what they were intending to do. Whether he critiqued the plan or not, it understandably didn't reach those on the ground the 20 miles or so from the city where they set down.

Understandable as it was that the drop took place in the dead of night (although that also highlights just how badly wrong it had the potential to go), it was always going to heighten suspicions about just what eight people, six heavily armed were doing out in the middle of nowhere, especially considering all the concerns about foreign mercenaries. If anything, it's remarkable no one ended up getting killed: they could just have easily resisted and overpowered the farm guards who discovered their presence.

Just how plausible all of this is is difficult to gauge. Were things really that tight that it was thought best to attempt to establish diplomatic facts on the ground with a couple of spooks surrounded by heavily armed SAS/SBS men, knowing full well that it was highly likely that someone was bound to notice them coming in? Was it a cock up involving this supposed MI6 man working at the farm, getting the wrong signals? Was it all agreed and the guards at the farm not properly informed? If so, why were they held for now what we're being told is a lengthy four days before they were eventually released? Was the whole situation as completely and utterly confused as it seems looking on from here?

It's always best in such situations to err on the side of cock-up rather than conspiracy, but it is worth referring back to the Bravo Two Zero debacle. The men captured last week were carrying what seems to have been highly similar kit, kit which Craig Murray describes not as anything likely to be supporting any kid of diplomatic mission but that of a raid team. He's been backed up by other former ambassadors who have described the entire episode as bizarre, even in the circumstances. While Craig has alluded to suggestions that they may have targeted an arms cache that mysteriously exploded on Friday evening, that doesn't tally with the new reports saying they had been under house arrest for four days. Other reports have suggested that Gaddafi may still have stocks of mustard gas, stocks that obviously we would want to account for and destroy if possible, although it seems doubtful they'd be based out in that part of the country. If they had been on a secret special mission to take control of something or remove a specific threat, it seems curious that they would have let themselves be taken so easily, while it seems doubtful they would have wanted spooks, even the energetic kind with them, potential cover if they were scuppered or not.

Whatever the truth, it's difficult to disagree with the verdict of Ming Campbell that the operation was "ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed". It's also exactly the kind of episode that Gaddaffi must have been hoping for: the British involving themselves in an incredibly suspicious landing of special forces, directly helping the rebels and potentially striking against his fightback. Even if the Arab street might currently be on the side of the uprising, it won't take many similar cack-handed acts of "diplomacy" to potentially turn that on its head, calls for a no-fly zone aside. It's also an indictment of a government that has veered from one policy to another: two weeks ago Cameron was gallivanting around the Gulf flogging weapons; a week ago he seemed to be on the verge of sending in the gunboats we don't have, only to be brought back to the realm of sensibility by Obama; and then by the end of the week he was "being kept informed" of a mission which will go down in the pantheon of special forces foul-ups.

Hague meanwhile looks completely out of his depth when it comes to an actual crisis. The worst thing that can happen to a politician is to be witheringly mocked across the dispatch box: a killer put-down or quotable insult that becomes engraved forever on their record. Everyone vaguely politically minded remembers or knows of "dead sheep" Geoffrey Howe's cricketing metaphor which helped bring down Thatcher, or Ann Widdecombe describing Michael Howard as having something of the night about him; Douglas Alexander's question of whether Hague would introduce himself to new neighbours by "ringing the doorbell or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night" has the potential to stay with him in much the same way. And every farce needs a great tagline.

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