Bernard Ingham: The age of the gunboat is over for British foreign policy

EVERY time Tim Wonnacott, the punning presenter of BBC’s Bargain Hunt, comes on my TV screen, I am reminded of foreign policy. At the end of his programmes he sometimes says he is sure viewers think they could do better than the featured teams and, if so, why not have a go?

Foreign Secretary William with actress Angelian Jolie in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Foreign Secretary William with actress Angelian Jolie in the Democratic Republic of Congo

EVERY time Tim Wonnacott, the punning presenter of BBC’s Bargain Hunt, comes on my TV screen, I am reminded of foreign policy. At the end of his programmes he sometimes says he is sure viewers think they could do better than the featured teams and, if so, why not have a go?

I can just hear our beleaguered Foreign Secretary, William Hague, saying much the same thing as he wrestles with the Middle Eastern mess, Putin’s meddling in the Ukraine, Europe’s impending choice of Commission president and the palsy that grips the West.

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Let’s concentrate on the Middle East. I have to confess that I feel sorry for Hague for the festering sore he has been landed with. He has to cope with the consequences of past foreign policies, which severely limit his options today. He must feel like the Irishman who, when asked for route directions, says: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

The poor chap did not invade Afghanistan or Iraq. He is not responsible for the paralysis that has infected the West after those bloody conflicts – a paralysis that perhaps fortunately killed off any idea of intervention in Syria or the Crimea.

Leave aside whether we could afford it, we lack the Armed Forces, not to mention public will, to back up an interventionist foreign policy.

Nor did Hague launch the European single currency, which has seriously debilitated the poorer half of Europe. And he is certainly not the architect of Europe’s politically correct, wishy-washy social democracy with its overriding aim of ever closer political union that is designed to draw whatever teeth nation states have left.

It is perhaps not surprising that latterly he has engaged himself in good moral works, continuing his campaign against rape as an instrument of war with Dame Angelina Jolie. He is doing all any Foreign Secretary can do on that front – orchestrating the revulsion of the civilised world in what will at best be a long haul.

So what, if anything, should we do about Iraq? I can almost hear some people wishing Margaret Thatcher were back with her penchant for decisive action. They are, however, misreading her.

She was, in reality, a cautious soul. In the Falklands and Kuwait, she responded to clear-cut invasions.

She railed against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and Ronald Reagan’s brief foray to remove an unpleasant Leftie from Grenada. And she had to be satisfied that Reagan’s bombing of Libya, using Britain as an advance aircraft carrier, was legally water-tight.

In other words, she was a stickler for international law.

You may reasonably say that international law is an ass if it does not give you the right to intervene militarily when terrorists indulging in extreme violence seek to take over a country – in this case Syria as well as Iraq.

Yes, indeed. But nothing we have touched, however distantly, since the Arab Spring of 2011 seems to have done much good. Not in Libya, Egypt, the Yemen, Somalia or Syria.

Moreover, positive intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have proved two things.

First, the West cannot implant democracy in faction-ridden nations with a medieval mind-set and methods to match – armed not with bows and arrows but the weaponry of the 21st century. If it tries to do so, it merely manufactures terrorists.

Yet we cannot regard Iraq as some far distant country of which we know little.

We shall pay a price for the current chaos in the cost of oil and in heaven only knows how many British jihadists already planning mayhem in Britain as they fight in the Middle East.

In short, Hague finds himself hogtied as we begin to understand our limitations as well as those of the United Nations.

The day of Palmerston’s gunboat is over, always assuming we could afford the damn things.

At hand are years of unedifying diplomacy, sanctions, pressure, practical assistance, though at most with only specialist boots on the ground, and co-operating with such dubious states as Iran.

It is not Boy’s Own sort of stuff. But it has the merit of trying to cope with a world in which one branch of Islam has it in for another and for the West in between Muslim blood-letting.

To achieve progress we shall have to deal with some nasty nations while relentlessly pursuing the objective of a better world. And if you think there is a better way of doing it, then we long to hear from you – though not if you are Tony Blair.