Conspiracies very rarely succeed. Basil Fawlty is the best guide to the way the world really works

It is not in any way my intention to write an amusing column about the latest escalation in violence between the Israelis and Palestinians, though, come to think of it, you could imagine this as a Statesman comp in a malevolent alternative universe: sum up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a single limerick.

But wasn't there something strange about the bombing of the US Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden? I'm speaking as someone whose knowledge about America has been acquired in much the same way that Americans acquire their knowledge about America, namely through films and TV.

If you were making a movie or writing a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller about a devastating assault on an American destroyer, you would need to create a complex scenario. You would start with a scene out of The Day of the Jackal, in which a sinister Mr Big recruits the most brilliant terrorist in the world. "You understand, Mr Big," the terrorist would say, "that an American destroyer is impregnable. I will require my usual fee of $100 million paid in two instalments into my Geneva account. I will also require a team of highly skilled operatives, which I will select myself. First, I need Juan Demarco, the Mozart of explosives." Even as I type these words, I'm starting to rather enjoy this film.

But the reality of this devastating attack was entirely different. It was a Keystone Cops operation, in which a couple of fanatics packed a rubber dinghy with explosives and steered it towards the destroyer. Just before setting off the explosion, they stood and saluted. What a brilliant plan. An officer on the boat was quoted as saying that he had assumed the dinghy was just another one of the little boats that was helping the destroyer moor up, prior to refuelling. This evokes some image out of a cheery Rodgers and Hammerstein musical: an American destroyer drifts into a foreign port and lots of tiny boats surround it, offering to help the crew dock or hawking local produce. Did it not occur to anybody that a US Navy destroyer in a Gulf port might be under threat at this time?

We've all been corrupted by too many James Bond and Steven Seagal movies. The enemies of the Great Satan don't need to hollow out volcanoes or purloin nuclear missiles. Just fill a van with explosives and drive it up to the American base. It worked in Beirut.

When historians come to look back at the military and intelligence of the western powers, their principal finding will surely be that nothing much worked. Bombs missed their target, rockets exploded on take-off, aircraft attacked their own sides and bombed the wrong embassy. In John le Carre novels, double agents are fiendishly difficult to find. In real life, they are figures like Guy Burgess, who gets drunk and sings the Soviet national anthem, or like Anthony Blunt, who writes in the Spectator as an open supporter of Stalinism.

Most dangerous of all is when western leaders suddenly believe that they're in a movie. No doubt Jimmy Carter had seen Where Eagles Dare. If Richard Burton could jump between two moving cable cars, get into an impregnable German castle and out again, while killing half the German army, then how difficult could it be for elite American troops to rescue hostages from a bunch of towelheads in Tehran? Younger readers may not know what happened on this mission. The helicopters all broke down on the way because someone on the aircraft carrier hadn't read the instruction book (I never bother either) and hosed them down with sea water, corroding all the moving parts.

Like most people, I have grown up believing that the American and British governments have consistently orchestrated vast, complex conspiracies against their own people, which include the assassination of a president and the covering up of extra-terrestrial visits. Use one careless word in an e-mail message, and you will instantly be subject to an extraordinary panoply of electronic surveillance.

I have no doubt that governments lie, cheat and suborn whenever they can, but does anybody really believe that the US government is good at conspiracies when it can barely manage to deliver the mail? And it's not as if we can be smug in Britain. How do you attack MI5 headquarters? You fire a rocket from the park on the other side of the Thames, leave the rocket-launcher on the grass. It then takes the police 12 hours to find it. The moral is, don't believe the academic analysts, don't even believe the thriller-writers with their detailed research. Joseph Heller and John Cleese's Basil Fawlty are the true realists about the way the world works.

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