Think it through: Previous UK policy towards Libya was smart and effective

Former British Ambassador Charles Crawford argues UK and EU policy towards Libya since 9/11 was, give or take, about as good as it could have been

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Blair meets Gaddafi in a now infamous Bedouin tent
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Charles Crawford
On 5 September 2011 21:51

In the frenzied surge of revelations arising from the finding of various secret papers in Tripoli (this Daily Mail piece by Ian Birrell is a good example which at least shows us pictures of some of the documents, and very readable they are too), it is easy to lose sight of basic principles of democratic foreign policy.

The core case said to be made by the finding of these documents varies, but in essence they are proclaimed to show that the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments cooperated in a cosy way with the Gaddafi regime as if this was something incredible, indecent and secret.

Over on Twitter Jon Williams (BBC Foreign Editor) is pumping out this severe nonsense:

@WilliamsJon Jon Williams

Any suggestion of MI6 relationship with #Libya into 2011 v damaging to FCO & No10. Til now claimed UK-Gaddafi ties part of Blair/Brown past

Why precisely is this ‘very damaging’? It is damaging only in so far as shallow BBC people like Jon Williams decide to use their prominent media positions to assert that such contacts were wrong.

Let’s step back a few years.

For decades, the Gaddafi regime was an eccentric and dangerous sui generis international phenomenon, emitting unpredictable outlandish rhetoric and busily supporting all sorts of nasty violent causes including the IRA.

Plus, the regime set about developing various illegal weapons of mass destruction. If there was one crumb of comfort for us in Gaddafi’s waywardness, it was that it was so wayward: even though Gaddafi struck the usual shrill anti-Western Third World poses he did not align himself formally with the Soviet Union or China. But all in all, Gaddafi and what he represented was a poisonous blot on the international landscape.

Then came 9/11 and the US-led intervention in Iraq. The spectacle of Saddam Hussein being toppled so easily came as a horrible shock to Gaddafi. What if he were next?

Gaddafi sent a secret message to London saying that he wanted to talk. This led to the now famous negotiations with MI6 in London’s Travellers Club and a series of diplomatic manoeuvres to bring to an end in a verifiable way the whole Libyan WMD programme.

The British role in delivering this superb outcome which made the world a notably safer place was praised at the highest levels in Washington; it ranks among our greatest foreign policy successes since the end of the Cold War.

In return for surrendering the WMD programme, Gaddafi demanded something significant by way of respectability. And that’s what he got.

Western leaders - yes, including Tony Blair – started to treat the Gaddafi elite as if they were more or less reasonable partners. Trade and investment accelerated. British support was given to help train the Libyan armed forces and intelligence services in better practices. For their own cynical reasons the Libyan leadership started to cooperate with us against Al Qaeda.

The key thing to understand in all this is that there are only two basic choices available to democracies when it comes to dealing with odious regimes: Isolation, or Engagement. And that both can have perverse consequences, because it is impossible to deal with perverse regimes without some perverse outcomes

Isolation (plus or minus sanctions) invariably drags on unhappily, mainly because the regimes are never in fact that isolated: see the wild success of those policies for eg Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Belarus. In some cases the regime may isolate itself, all the better to oppress its own citizens: see decades of North Korea.

Engagement creates different problems. Above all, if you engage with dirty people, how to avoid some of their dirt ending up on you? The promise of Engagement is that it offers the hope of slowly but surely changing things for the better; the danger is that while you are doing that, the key leaders of the regime in fact get far richer and learn how to be oppressive in new, cleverer ways.

So in the Libya case. The stupid/wicked/naïve Brits trained the Libyan security forces! Of course we did: if you want to set in motion a process of reform and enlightenment in such regressive institutions, what else to do?

Think about what this means in practice. If the Libyan secret police are known torturers, you will be training them while their torturing ways continue. Even if the total amount of Libyan torture declines sharply as a direct result of Libyans cleaning up their act during the wider normalisation process, your trainers in one way or the other will be helping a torturing regime be more efficient.

Yet without outside democratic engagement (and the high-level civilisational rewards which rightly flow to the regime for behaving in a less extreme way) the chances of reducing Libyan torture at all (and thereby opening some small new space for opposition trends) are hugely reduced.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Engagement is that it appears to reward a regime in its bad behaviour.

The regime vaunts its new-found international standing to discredit and marginalise even more than before those domestic voices calling for freedom. Slobodan Milosevic was a genius at this, feting Richard Holbrooke to make the Serbian democratic forces look weak and irrelevant.

There is no good policy answer to this.

These regimes by definition are good and ruthless at controlling their domestic space. Engagement necessarily takes place in large measure on the regime’s own terms.

The hope for us is that Engagement creates a form of ‘creative dissonance’, where one positive change leads to another, and another. Greater foreign investment brings with it higher accounting standards and greater transparency. Training government officials demonstrates completely different ways of dealing with people.

Seeds get planted in the barren local political and psychological soil. Some fail. But some grow.

In short, the Blair/Brown government and then the Cameron-led government all did exactly the right thing to engage closely and determinedly with the Gaddafi regime after the WMD issue was resolved. This policy has been warmly encouraged by Nelson Mandela, who always had a soft spot for Gaddafi.

Indeed, the case can reasonably be made that the very fact that Libya has seen such an economic and political opening up in recent years has itself helped bring home to the Libyan people just how badly and corruptly the Gaddafi regime has run the country for so long.

When the anti-regime protests started in North Africa, Libya was ripe for revolutionary upheaval.

Does this mean that no mistakes were made? Of course not. The 2009 transfer back to Libya of the convicted Pan Am 103 terrorist Al-Megrahi was obviously unwise and merits a full review. Maybe there were other areas where our keenness to change (and, yes, benefit from) the Gaddafi regime led to bad, furtive deals or other errors of judgement.

But such failings, if that is what they were, must be seen in the context of a general British and EU policy towards Libya and the region which was principled, smart and mainly effective.

Memo to Jon Williams, BBC: You’re supposed to know about foreign policy. Stop being silly, bewailing the fact that successive British governments were ‘close’ to the Gaddafi regime. So were many of the key rebel leaders. That’s how it was. Deal with it. 

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets at @charlescrawford 

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