Leading article: Impotence is the price of a reckless foreign policy

Western political capital has been fruitlessly expended in the Libyan imbroglio

William Hague could not have expressed himself more clearly: military action against Syria, he said, one day after the tanks and snipers of the Syrian security forces killed more than 140 protesters in the city of Hama, was "not a remote possibility", even in the unlikely event of the United Nations authorising it.

The Foreign Secretary was only saying what has long been understood. The possibility of exerting pressure on regimes caught up in the Arab Spring uprisings varies from country to country, but in Syria it has always been minimal.

The sensitivity of Syria's position between Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel means that the consequences of a regime collapse there are far more unpredictable and, in all probability, destabilising than elsewhere. And if Bashar al-Assad has finally shed what remained of his moderate reputation and emerged in the same bloody colours as his father Hafiz, the transformation should surprise no one: as a minority of only about 15 per cent in the Syrian population, the ruling Alawites, who also account for a large proportion of army officers, have their backs against the wall. They are fighting not only for their privileges but their lives. Yet there was something plaintive about Mr Hague's remarks nonetheless: "We want to see stronger international pressure all round. Of course, to be effective that can't just be pressure from Western nations, that includes from Arab nations, that includes from Turkey."

The fact that Britain can only appeal rather pathetically for nations in the region and beyond to do their bit reveals how much political capital has been fruitlessly expended in the Libyan imbroglio. When Nato attacks to secure a Libyan no-fly zone commenced on 17 March, it was hard to find anyone who thought it was a bad idea. Even the Arab League was cajoled into backing the action. Colonel Gaddafi was on the point of slaughtering the ragged opposition in Benghazi: the West stepped up to stop more civilians being killed, and the world applauded. If any sort of a role remained for the Middle East's former imperial masters at this late date, arguably this was it. But David Cameron's inexperienced government allowed its excitement at once again appearing a world player to get the better of its prudence. It woefully underestimated his stubborn staying power, overestimated the cohesion and the military capability of the opposition – and allowed the capricious urgings of President Sarkozy, busy inventing ways to distract attention from his problems at home, to be its guide.

The challenge now is less how to bring Gaddafi to justice than how to find a way of extricating ourselves from a conflict with no apparent solution with the least possible amount of shame and obloquy falling on our heads. As a result, Mr Hague can only wag his finger impotently at the Russians and the Chinese and the Arab League and urge them to do the decent thing over Syria. They, for their part, can quietly mock our folly and congratulate themselves on their good sense in staying well away. The idea of intervention justified on moral grounds looks more questionable than ever, and meanwhile Bashar al-Assad can proceed with his murderous crackdown with little fear of obstruction from the outside world.

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