Quote of the week, with a bullet:
Yeah, I suppose I am. I forgot about that. I’m holding the fort but I’m hoping to take the end of the week off with my kids. Someone else will have to do it then
That’s Nick Clegg, answering a journalist who asked if he was in charge of government business during David Cameron’s Democracy: Free! With Every Barrel of Teargas tour of the Middle East. (Thanks to Think Defence for the heads up.)
There’s a wider issue here. Beyond the droll fact that, when the British evacuation eventually began, 70% of it consisted of ships that are due to be scrapped as soon as they pay off from their current voyages (Cumberland and York) and aircraft (47 Squadron RAF’s C130s) that have been ridden to ribbons and will not be replaced, beyond Nick Clegg’s dropped bollock, the question is surely “how on earth did they miss this?” This isn’t the first revolution to break out in the Middle East or North Africa lately. It’s the third or possibly fourth depending on how you score Bahrain. It is inexcusable that nobody seems to have asked “So, what happens if Libya/Morocco/Algeria/Yemen/the UAE/Saudi Arabia is next?” It’s been high time to review the noncombatant evacuation plans for weeks.
The problem is surely that reviewing them would imply having a policy. The reason why there were significant numbers of Britons in Libya, after all, is that it was British foreign policy for them to be there. The government wanted to trade with Libya and the Libyans wanted to trade with us, and so Dave Expat dragged his suitcase and his mud-pulse telemetry system off to the Great Sand Sea. Apparently, a trade delegation was in Libya within the last three months (and they tried to sell some very noteworthy goods - sniper’s rifles and concentrated tear gas). No matter what the bullshit is, the substance of policy hasn’t changed at all.
Accepting the need for revised contingency plans would involve accepting that Gaddafi (and all the others) weren’t sources of “stability” and that their enemies weren’t necessarily the monsters they claimed they were.
But up until now, I had the impression that William Hague wasn’t doing such a bad job. How? Well, the main reason was the things he hadn’t done. Tony Blair would probably have found reasons to be in favour of reform but also of a firm hand to maintain stability, or some other such obscene formula. Hague managed to avoid being trapped into saying anything obviously evil or getting stuck on the wrong side. In part this is just because he frequently chose to say nothing. And getting Cameron to Cairo was a neat move.
Unfortunately, what I was watching was the automatic pilot in action. Issuing inoffensive press statements, getting the PM to the right place - all this is easy enough. Libya required big decisions, and the botched evacuation gave everyone permission to notice that Cameron was touring the Middle East to sell a variety of things, but especially, arms. In that sense, policy was pure Blair, or Thatcher - be best pals with the dictators, claim they are “gradually reforming”, sell them a variety of stuff but especially, arms.
And looking back over the last six months, this pattern re-emerges. Coalition foreign policy looks at least harmless, as long as it’s not doing anything. As soon as the strain is applied, though, the cracks show.