Iran? Remember the Falklands, Mr Blair
By Andrew O'Hagan
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 27/03/2007
Have your say Read comments
There must be a widespread sense of distraction in Britain at the moment, or conflict fatigue, otherwise it's hard to understand why this newspaper was the only quality one yesterday to lead on the plight of 15 British sailors kidnapped in the Shatt al-Arab waterway south of Basra.
Even if you think, as I do, that Britain has no real business being in Iraq in the first place, it is maddening that a neighbouring power should simply choose to abduct servicemen and women as if they were not human beings but ciphers in a vast political game.
The relative inattention is weird. If they had been French sailors, or Spanish, we would be up in arms at the injustice and the outrageous insult offered by Teheran to diplomatic relations and world security. But because they are British, and so many of us are opposed to the war, we almost behave as if the servicemen deserve whatever they get, and that their horrible experience (to say nothing of the unspeakable anxiety of their families) is somehow their just deserts for finding themselves embroiled in an unpopular war.
<A HREF="http://ads.telegraph.co.uk/event.ng/Type%3dclick%26FlightID%3d18028%26AdID%3d21645%26T argetID%3d4729%26Redirect%3dhttp://www.microsoft.com/uk/windows/prizedraw/default.mspx" target="_blank"><IMG SRC="http://ads.telegraph.co.uk/m/microsoft/vista/windows-vista-wow-300x250.gif" WIDTH=300 HEIGHT=250 BORDER=0></A>
This is puerile thinking. Servicemen and women are professionally engaged and we must not allow our consideration of the politics surrounding their tasks to undermine our feeling for them as servants of duty. I have never understood - at least, not since I was a blathering teenager - the concept that soldiers and sailors are part of some general, faceless evil called militarism, and that the world would be a safer place if one were to take away all the machine-guns and bombs.
There were no machine-guns or bombs at the time of the Hundred Years War, though plenty of damage was done. And even Robert Burns, that international poet of peace and liberty, understood what it was to feel respect for those who agreed to serve their country.
Tony Blair is therefore right to speak of this Iranian matter in the strongest of terms. He must send the message that kidnapping cannot be tolerated, no matter what the kidnappers' fears or grievances. Teheran might prefer the notion that Western servicemen are guilty by their very nature, and subhuman, but Blair would be failing in his duty if he were not to oppose with the utmost vigour all actions based on that view.
The great trial for Blair is to get those sailors safely back on board HMS Cornwall without the matter becoming an international incident, though the Iranians, thus far, would appear to be inviting one.
Blair said last week how he now admired Mrs Thatcher's policy during the Falklands conflict. I suppose he means that he identifies with her moral cause and sees it as a milestone on the road to Project Democracy - that of turning the world towards liberal democracy before countries spread their brand of tyranny to their neighbours. The Argentinians invaded a small island, just as the Iranians kidnapped the personnel of a small British ship, and one could see this latest matter escalating in the same way, with bitter rewards.
Those who supported the Falklands war have always claimed that it ended the rule of a military junta in Argentina and so was worth the candle, even if the islands themselves aren't much cop, and even if the rewards of ''democracy'' are still not felt in the country as the liberators had hoped. But that war, like so many, constituted a depressing failure of diplomacy, and it is that part of the equation that Blair should heed. Galtieri was squaring for a fight back then, and Teheran is now, but the nobler mind is that which can avert disaster even as it presses forward with a logic and momentum all of its own.
It is not our business to press the cause of democracy in Iran, but simply to bring our sailors back. Without a clear focus on the latter, this debacle would be sure to result in the kind of military conflict that would suit the fundamentalists (on both sides) down to the ground. It may be too late for Blair, or his legacy, but not too late for him to realise for himself that a great statesman is not to be judged on how well he fights wars but in how diligently and brilliantly he avoids them.
It looks like my generation, and the one after, might burn itself out trying to prevent civil war in Iraq, and that we may be haunted by the knowledge that our attempt, with the United States, to export democracy there resulted in a tyranny that will always bear something of our name. We must be extra-vigilant not to be fooled into doing anything of that kind in Iran, of using this kidnapping of our servicemen as a pretext for bloodshed and retaliation.
But these things will surrender nothing of their complication. It is the Iranians who are behaving with terrifying hostility and carelessness; but we must learn how to handle dire provocations with a delicacy born of an understanding of what is lost when one of our cruise missiles finds its target. What is lost is not merely a military installation, a block of flats, perhaps some innocent or some not-so-innocent lives, but an opportunity to find a way back to what we actually are: a nation at the other side of the world, with problems of our own, and no direct responsibility for how life is lived in Iran.
With any luck, those 15 sailors will be back in their bunks by the time you read this. If not, perhaps the rest of the world will have awakened to what it could mean. Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett will be right to let toleration fade out of their warnings, but they must show by example how to deactivate aggression and underline their sense of the seriousness of this threat by not immediately allowing it to erupt in their faces. The important thing is to get those sailors out of Iran, and for Britain to remain similarly out of Iran for good.