On the road to Ankara with a beleaguered Foreign Secretary

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IT LOOKED a perfect setting for what is known in the trade as "another Cook debacle". After going to Delhi last year and having Britain described by India as a "third rate power," and then charming the Israelis in March to the point of being practically thrown out of the country, our peripatetic Foreign Secretary was off on his travels again this week, this time to Turkey.

After the sandstorms, hailstorms and snowstorms which trailed him around the Middle East, the weather too fitted the moment. Shortly after we landed, the skies turned black and a mighty thunderstorm swept Ankara. On past form, he'd be leaving that night, having converted Turkey's discontent with the European Union into a full-scale declaration of war.

But sadly, not so. Mr Cook's misfortunes are well known, and a new opinion poll shows he has the highest negative rating of any member of the Cabinet - such is the price of notoriety when you divorce your wife and marry your mistress, become entangled in a rumpus over illegal arms trading and are generally considered by both friend and foe to be too clever by half. One thing however must be reported: Mr Cook is still alive and in charge as Foreign Secretary.

Does discontent smoulder among his officials? If so, it's not detectable to the naked eye. Is the strain of Sandline getting to Mr Cook? Maybe, but again, you'd be hard-pressed to notice. Perhaps he's become a compartmentaliser like Bill Clinton, who keeps Monica Lewinsky and Saddam Hussein in opposite corners of his brain.

Or take Tuesday's excursion to Ankara - eight hours in the air and 3,400 miles in all, for just five hours on the ground. Now diplomatic gridlocks don't come more gridlocked than the one featuring Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the EU, sundry disputed rocky islets in the Aegean and much else beside.

Remember, after all, that even Richard Holbrooke - famous banger together of heads over Bosnia and now Mr Clinton's special envoy for Cyprus - has just abandoned in despair his latest attempt to persuade the two communities on the island to talk to one another. Not surprisingly, Mr Cook didn't solve anything, and couldn't even manage to cajole Turkey into attending a fence-mending meeting in Brussels next week.

So was the half-day in Anatolia a useless jaunt by a Foreign Secretary on the skids? The fact is that he had little choice but to go. Britain currently holds the EU presidency. Turkey has every reason to still be bitter at the EU's refusal last December in Luxembourg to place it even on the B-list for future membership, while American pressure on Europe to open its doors to Turkey is intense. In political and geo-strategic terms the country is simply too important to be allowed to sulk.

What is more, if his hosts are to be believed, he seems to have said the right things, stroking bruised egos while holding the caustic Cook tongue in check - even as Greece publicly sandbagged an initiative he was putting forward at that very moment to the Turkish president, Mesut Yilmaz. Finally, just before he left, he signalled the EU's concern over human rights in Turkey by visiting the bedside of Akin Birdal, the leading human rights campaigner almost killed in a shooting attack last week in which the government is widely suspected to have had a hand.

So a waste of time? It depends how you measure the use of diplomatic time. A welcome respite from ordeal by Sandline? Doubtless. But also a reminder that amid all the hyperventilating over the arms-to-Sierra Leone affair - which in America would be treated as a national triumph and in France would hardly raise an eyebrow - we should keep a sense of proportion.

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