I didn’t hear William Hague’s interview on the Today programme – I am a silence person first thing – but the avalanche on twitter suggested he didn’t do terribly well. I thought I would offer a word in his defence.
It is not easy being Foreign Secretary when an international storm is raging. When someone like Gaddafi decides to tough it out in the way that he has, and when different countries are taking different positions in the way that they are, what any one government can do is limited.
But of course the public and the media expect you to have a view and then when you express it they complain that it’s all words, words, words. It has always struck me as an odd complaint. Words are fundamental to diplomacy, so the words you choose, and how you deploy them, are important.
However, when a foreign leader does not play by rules we would deem acceptable – most Western politicians probably thought Gaddafi would have gone by now – it means you are relying on the same words for longer than you planned. It seems an age since Hague indicated – probably wishful thinking – that Gaddafi was all aboard Air Force Mad Dog to Venezuela. So he has had to stretch out the anger, the concern, the condemnation, the words words words that give voice to a government position.
Throw in the seeming mess-up over a plane not taking off from Gatwick, with much of the media racing as quickly as they can to the most British angle they can find, and you have all the makings of a bit of a firestorm for Mr Hague, whose only recourse is trying to get a grip on the difficult business of extracting Brits who want to be extracted and the uttering of more words words words.
Meanwhile David Cameron continues with his rather odd trip – if it’s Wednesday it must be Qatar and a q and a about homophobia in football – without a clear or enduring voice on Libya or anything else. Whereas Hague is getting ground down by Libya, Cameron is bouncing from country to country, message to message, issue to issue like some Pick n Mix Premier not entirely clear about why he is there or what he is meant to be saying.
Ultimately that is Hague’s problem, the lack of clarity of thought about what is happening in other parts of the world, and how it impinges on UK interests. I can also tip him off about another problem coming his way. Some of the oil companies are trying to get people INTO Libya, Libyans based here who are worried about their country and their families. They have been trying to get the Foreign Office engaged but without much success.
When he became Foreign Secretary William Hague probably thought he would be dealing with great affairs of state. But Cameron having decided to reduce foreign policy to an extension of trade policy, the brief has shrunk. And it means that for the next bit, Hague needs in his own mind not to be a statesman or diplomat, but to develop the mindset of a customer liaison official at an airport grounded by strike action – prepare for lots of moaning, but try to do your best to grip the things you can grip so that people will stop moaning, while the Libyans try to sort themselves out.
One final point. The occasional comment has appeared on my twitter feed to the effect that Cameron and Hague ought to prepare a dossier saying Gaddafi has WMD, and then mount an invasion. I get the point. If I may answer the jibe with a serious point – Gaddafi did have a WMD programme, and gave it up, partly no doubt to seek to end his Pariah state reputation, but also because he had seen the seriousness of intent with which the issue of Saddam and WMD had been tackled.
He may be back to Pariah mode. But at least he doesn’t have WMD which, given his recent actions, would seem to be a good thing.