HARMED FORCES; Once the World Looked Up to Our Military. Now, after the Disasters of the Blair Years, It Is in a Precarious State. Here, an Iraq War Hero Tells How Our Forces - and Their Brave Men and Women - Can Be Saved

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Byline: By COLONEL TIM COLLINS

TONY Blair's speech yesterday smacked of someone trying to apologise for mistakes and explain his good intent. It didn't work for me.

No doubt he will dismiss my views as yet another example of a distortion of the truth.

But I look at things from the standpoint of one who has served in the army and, on foreign soil, discussed it with those who live in lands less fortunate than ours.

These people once looked up to the UK for three reasons.

Firstly, they admired our sense of justice and foresightedness.

Secondly, they were impressed with our faithfulness as an ally - acting as the conscience to Europe and a calming influence on the US.

Thirdly, they admired our willingness and ability to intervene to right wrongs with robust, professional and effective armed forces.

During Blair's time all these things have been degraded to a dangerously precarious state.

Despite the celebrated shortcomings of previous foreign secretaries under Blair, Margaret Beckett has stood out as the worst and least effective.

A senior official in her department described her to me as inaudible, invisible and incompetent. Blair has been his own foreign secretary and relegated Margaret Beckett to the role of receptionist - a role she's eagerly cultivated.

One of the first things Gordon Brown will have to address as he wades through the wreckage of Blair's legacy will be to select and install a robust, intelligent and far-sighted foreign secretary.

My vote would be Denis Mc- Shane or - if it is a hung parliament - Sir Menzies Campbell, the finest foreign secretary we never had.

Across Europe and the world, friends and allies are hungry for some coherence in our foreign policy to fill the vacuum of recent years.

The US is ignoring us and the special relationship has been neglected and abused by obsequiousness.

But, like it or not, that relationship remains vital and must be repaired by a robust new foreign forces are in a bad way and in need of a boost of morale and funding.

BLAIR did some waffling about defence spending yesterday. But waffling is no good. We must be clear.

Since our army dipped below 100,000 it is now classified internationally as a "defence force" - not an army.

Blair can boast to those who despise the armed forces and what they stand for as having emasculated the defence of the nation.

He can honestly tell Cherie: "Honey. …