BLAIR'S TRUE LEGACY; A Bankrupt Foreign Policy. the Contempt of the World. the Tarnishing of Our Glorious Armed Forces. How WILL Brown Rescue Britain from This Shambles?

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

ONE DAY in 1848, the Royal Navy warship HMS Fantome dropped anchor off the Greek port of Patras, and dispatched a boat to the shore to take on water.

Greek relations with Britain were then poor, following several incidents in which British subjects had allegedly been mistreated.

Local police in Patras detained the midshipman in command of the boat. He was held overnight before being grudgingly released.

Palmerston, Britain's Foreign Secretary of the day, professed outrage. It was he who invented what became known as 'gunboat diplomacy'. At first, the Greek government refused either redress to the British subjects - a pretty disreputable lot, as it happened - or an apology for the insult to Fantome's midshipman.

A powerful British fleet was cruising off the Dardanelles. Palmerston dispatched the Royal Navy to blockade first Piraeus, then every Greek port, and to seize any ship which attempted passage. After a few weeks under siege, the Greeks caved in. The injured British subjects received handsome compensation. The little midshipman got his apology.

Compare and contrast that episode with the experience of 15 British service personnel, illegally seized by the Iranians, held prisoner and threatened with a show trial.

The U.S. and Britain deploy hundreds of thousands of men, hundreds of combat aircraft and the most powerful fleet in the world in Iraq and its surrounding waters. Yet all this might can contribute nothing to retrieving the hostages - for hostages are, of course, what the British prisoners have become.

There is no credible military option.

Nobody who remembers President Jimmy Carter's disastrous 1980 attempt to rescue the 52 Americans taken hostage in the Tehran Embassy would contemplate a repeat performance today.

A major military operation would be needed, dependent on American planes and helicopters. No matter how brilliant is the SAS, nor what intelligence can be gathered about the British prisoners' place of detention, the risk of failure is far too great. It could precipitate open conflict between Iran, Britain and America.

The captives' freedom must turn, therefore, on diplomacy. What is the United Nations for, if not for this? Here we have a case in which European solidarity should be assured, an outrage against international law and basic standards of civilised behaviour.

THE SEIZURE happened eight days ago. Yet it took almost a week for Europe's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to denounce it, and for the French government to be persuaded to join calls for the servicemen's release.

So much for all Blair's wasted wooing of the EU.

At the United Nations - and remember that the Royal Navy's patrol was acting under a UN mandate - Britain has struggled to achieve an agreed wording for a Security Council resolution condemning the Iranian action. The Russians baulked at accepting that the British party was in Iraqi waters, despite the satnav evidence presented by the Navy.

Many other countries simply don't want to know. Publicly or privately, they think the British have no business to be in Iraq or its offshore waters.

They shun the American and British involvement in the country as if it was some contagious disease, which in a sense it is. Fearful of infection, third parties keep their distance and their silence.

More than a few nations are frankly frightened of the Iranians.

The Tehran regime is one of the most ruthless in the world, the foremost sponsor of global terror. Iran is widely admired in Islamic societies for its defiance of the West.

To states with no desire to posture internationally, it seems most prudent to avoid words or gestures which might antagonise Iran's wild men. Anything for a quiet life, and to persuade terrorists to pitch their camps elsewhere.

That leaves British diplomats forced into urging, cajoling, pleading with governments around the world to give support in the political offensive to regain the sailors and marines. …