Sunday, 6 March 2011

Spies Like Us

The advent of box sets of old TV series can create new addicitons. Having made my way through four years' worth of Battlestar Galactica and all five seasons of Babylon 5, my more recent viewing has been the BBC historical drama "Fall of Eagles" from 1974. A little dated now, but with some solid turns by Charles Kay as Czar Nicholas, Barry Foster as Kaiser Wilhelm and the truly inspired casting of a young, but apparently ageless Patrick Stewart as Lenin, it charts the decline and fall of the European Empires of the 19th century.

Britain doesn't figure much in the series as our crumbling Empire dragged on for another three decades after Austro-Hungary ceased to exist, but we were reminded today that in one respect parts of our Government still apparently haven't quite got the message that the Great Game is long over.

A rather bizarre affair has emerged from Benghazi in Libya, the centre of the rebel revolt against Colonel Gaddafi's regime. Six members of the Special Air Squadron (SAS), Britain's elite military unit, were arrested along with two diplomats when they turned up uninvited. Suspicious locals apprehended them and took them in for questioning. Their nervousness about these strangers would be understandable given the repeated assaults on the city by the regime, but what was truly bizarre was that the SAS arrived, unannounced, by helicopter, landing on the edge of the city to proceed on foot. No surprise at all then that they were arrested - more surprising perhaps was the fact that they were not fired on or their helicopter shot down.

The Empire Strikes Back - Hague's hubris
There was at least a grain of comedy to be had in this grim situation - the British Ambassador to Libya phoned from London to a rebel leader in Benghazi and had his conversation hacked by Gaddafi's officials, who recored it and promptly played it on Libyan TV. The hesitant diplomat explained to the rebel that the British Government was keen to make contact and see what sort of humanitarian help might be needed and so wanted to send some diplomats for talks. But, he explained, they had sent a small party ahead (the SAS men in their helicopter) to find a hotel!  Yes, that's right - these gun-totting commandos were dropped out of the sky to make their way into Benghazi to check out the bed and board rates and book some rooms for the mandarins.

Now, I know the Government wants to save costs in these supposedly hard economic times, but was this the most effective way to ensure they got the best deal for the diplomats' stay? Couldn't they have used Google or or something like that? The episode is all the more incredulous given that a British navy destroyer was docked in Benghazi port at the very same time. Couldn't the Captain just have popped ashore and asked around? No wonder UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was so circumspect when asked about the incident.

But of course, the very presence of the destroyer, albeit to help evacuate people, raises questions about how even now we conduct our business in places like Libya. We happily arm the regime to the teeth - selling Gaddafi £200 millions of "crowd control" equipment last year alone - and then think when there is trouble we can arrogantly send not only ships but armed men into foreign countries to act with impunity. How would we have reacted if a group of armed Arabs turned up in London during the chaos of the student fees protest? Somehow, I suspect, with rather less restraint than that shown by the beleaguered Benghazis.

Yet aside from the farcical nature of this incident, there is one positive note - that nowhere have any of the protestors or rebels asked for any outside help, other than that we should stop our enthusiastic business dealings with the dictators. Mr Hague may like to sit in his office imagining some sort of steampunk fantasy where Britain still rules the waves and gunboat diplomacy gets results; but the rest of the world has moved on.

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