Libya: Welcome to realpolitik

The downfall of a dictator is always welcome. Especially welcome is the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal and quixotic rule of Libya. Thus ends the west’s contorted relationship with the serial tyrant. Until a few years ago, his toppling would have been greeted with open delight in western capitals. But in recent years, the Libyan leader had been brought in from international isolation, cast as an ally in the “war on terror” and a valued business partner. His current travails should be a cause of justified embarrassment – not least in London – since Britain led the way in the attempted rehabilitation of the Colonel.

For 42 years Gaddafi was the beneficiary of the crassest western intervention, veering between ineffective sanctions and ostracism to Blair’s cringing, oil-drenched “friendship”. Much has been said about Mark Rowney’s controversial article on British oil interest in Libya, but if anything it understated the cold truth. When Blair visited Gaddafi in 2004 and talked of a “new relationship” with Libya, British business followed in the Prime Minister’s wake and lucrative oil contracts were signed. Indeed, it was announced that Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell had signed a deal worth up to £550m for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast. As if to reinforce the point, the new Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC yesterday that British businesses should “pack their suitcases” in order to secure reconstruction contracts in the war-torn country.

Welcome to realpolitik. Many commentators, who clearly think they are being very clever, are arguing as if western pragmatism and realpolitik were responsible for keeping Gaddafi in power. That is nonsense. Foreign policy has to deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Those who were involved in dealings with his dictatorship have no need to apologise.

Changing attitudes to the Colonel highlight the way in which western concerns over despots are almost always coloured by convenience. In the 1980s, the Libyan leader was regarded as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism and rightly denounced for his dreadful human rights record. The US bombed Tripoli in 1986, whilst the UK was virtually in a state of undeclared war with Libya, culminating in Lockerbie, over Gaddafi’s continued funding of the IRA.

During the 1990s and into the 2000s the tensions gradually abated.  As part of his crab-like moves away from terrorism, Gaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction. Imagine the consequences today if he had succeeded in developing them. It is well worth noting that in his capitulation of his covert arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi did not go to Kofi Annan, the then UN General Secretary, or to that great, corrupt, French statesman Jacque Chirac, the then French President. Or indeed to Gerhard Schroeder of Germany. No, he went to Blair and disarmed his nuclear programme.

From Gordon Brown’s dissimulation over the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, to the sight of Silvio Berlusconi kissing the hand of the Libyan tyrant, many countries reputations have been stained. Libyan oil wealth, moreover, found its way into companies and institutions across Europe, from the Juventus football team to the London School of Economics.

In the space of seven short years Gaddafi went from being courted by the west to being cornered in a sewer, bombed by the same countries that had talked of bringing him in from the cold. Hypocrisy abounds in international relations. Rejoice at Gaddafi’s demise. But now Libyans need all the help they can get to build a better Libya. That means strengthening links to the wider world. Pragmatic engagement is better than isolation and regime change at the point of someone else’s bayonets. But it’s best to be honest about it.

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