More fool me for suggesting last week that a common European front might be formed in confronting Iran over its piracy and aggression. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, in The Observer, states what I wish were not true but is hard to dispute, namely that Europe has failed us in this crisis:
The firm statement made by EU foreign ministers calling for the 'immediate and unconditional' release is welcome. But the apparent lack of any agreement over economic pressure has two serious consequences. First, it makes it very unlikely that Britain will be able to secure the release of the service personnel in the short term. Second, it is now almost inevitable that Iran will try to impose conditions from the international community and, in particular, the US, on their ultimate release.
This lack of agreement shows how hollow are the aspirations to a common European foreign policy. France and Germany should be ashamed at their refusal to assist their European partner in a humanitarian cause of this kind. If there had been a political will, there could already have been agreement.
There is no inherent reason that the EU should be feeble. One minor but encouraging sign among our EU partners is that the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, Ségolène Royal, whose grasp of foreign policy has hitherto been unsure to say the least, perceives the need for a tough response to Iran. She also understands that a theocratic tyranny whose foreign policy is founded on deception will be a threat if it has a nuclear capability of any description, whether military or supposedly civil.
Mme Royal is being consistent with her own party's traditions. When European social democracy had a collective emotional spasm in the 1980s and forgot its own history of standing firm against Soviet Communism, the French Socialists were the outstanding exception. President Mitterrand gave a historically vital speech to the West German Bundestag on 20 January 1983 to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Franco-German cooperation. He argued for the importance of the transatlantic alliance and insisted that a superpower agreement on intermediate nuclear forces must - contrary to Soviet demands - exclude France's own force de frappe, its minimal nuclear deterrent. He was right on this, and was in effect - within the contraints of diplomatic protocol - attacking the German Social Democrats, the SPD, immediately ahead of an election. (The SPD lost, and remained out of office for a further 15 years.)
I am a supporter of the ideals of European integration. Much that is of value in Europe's political culture, East and West, has been advanced by the European Union. The economic gains are substantial. As the Labour MP Denis MacShane noted in The Independent a few days ago: "It is only thanks to a bossy European Commission and a European Court that tells proud national administrations to get lost that we have an open Europe and not one carved up into protectionist little blocks so dear to our own Eurosceptics and isolationists." But the political effect - as a solvent of long-established conflicts - is still more important. British debate has long been marked, unfortunately, by protest at the supposed lack of accountability of European institutions (rendered by sly xenophobes such as UKIP, but also by more respectable commentators, as "rule by Brussels"). But treaties by definition constrain sovereignty; the limit is something we assume voluntarily in recognition of a collective interest. The EU is very different in this respect from an organisation founded on domination and aggression by one party, such as the old Yugoslav Federation when the late Slobodan Milosevic (successively President of Serbia from 1987 to 1997 and then President of Yugoslavia) stripped Kosovo of the autonomy it was entitled to under the 1974 constitution.
Yet for all this, the European Union is - to put it no more strongly - reluctant to pursue a genuinely European foreign policy or interest. Its attempted interventions are often self-consciously constructed so as not to be mistaken for US policies. Sometimes there may even be value in this: with the American writer Paul Berman, I wish that the European Left, symbolised in the person of Joschka Fischer, had mounted an effective case on Iraq that appealed to humanitarian and anti-totalitarian principles as opposed to arguments of the Bush administration. But on Iran's aggression there can be no ambiguity. Iran's conduct is aggressive and its word is worthless. There is no point in a routine, whether accidental or devised, of "good cop, bad cop". Only pressure and opposition will do.
For our part in the UK, there are some arguments now coming from the right-wing press that are well worth avoiding. The Sunday Telegraph takes a reasonable premise - that our foreign policy must "stress to aggressors that we are not to be trifled with" - and forces a conclusion as perfectly ridiculous as it is unpleasantly partisan:
That the Iranians chose to take hostage British service personnel is in large part a consequence of policy under Mr Blair. His unquestioning support of the United States has made us the easy target for Middle Eastern countries who want to take action against America, but fear that country's military might. The Iranians are typical in this: unable and unwilling to pick a fight with the Americans - the power they call the Great Satan - they pick on the country they have dubbed the Little Satan: us.
They do so because they are confident that they can kidnap our troops without having to face any sort of serious retaliation. Their prediction is regrettably being proved correct. The Americans are not willing to risk their own servicemen to rescue or avenge ours. The almost total absence of the 15 British hostages from the American media demonstrates how marginal a concern their capture is in the United States.
I am no dove on this issue, and I criticised the Government last week in The Times for its culpable underreaction to Iranian aggression. But it is nonsense to suggest that aggressors intent on capturing hostages from an international force deployed under a UN mandate will avoid US troops. In fact, those are the first people they'll seek - as happened with the multinational force in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was President. That experience, as the Washington Post reported last summer, was recalled during much more recent debates over a multinational force to Lebanon to implement UN Security Council resolutions:
A major consideration will be security for the new international force itself. The last multinational force, deployed in 1982 and led by the United States, was repeatedly targeted by Muslim militants and forced to end its mission abruptly in 1984. U.S. forces were taken hostage. Marine Col. Rich Higgins was kidnapped shortly after he took over command of the U.N. Observer Group Lebanon in 1988. He died in captivity.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that the first choice of hostage for malign organisations and states is American troops, followed by British troops. That's one reason that peacekeeping operations are best done (and done well, too) by countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark, which are not the obvious target of terrorist organisations and militias. This has nothing to do with Tony Blair's supposed cravenness: it's to do with the relative influence of Britain in international affairs. And as Sweden famously found in 1981 when its waters were penetrated by a (probable) nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, neutrality won't get you very far if you wish to avoid being pushed around by aggressors. During the Clinton administration - particularly during the Kosvo intervention - there was an unprincipled tendency on the part of conservatives to carry their domestic political criticisms into foreign affairs. It is essential that no such thing happens in British debate now, especially with a Prime Minister whose term of office is drawing to a close and who has done much during it to advance the cause of Western security.