Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Charles Crawford on Britain's Al-Megrahi Libya Deal

The former ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw explains diplomatic factors behind the furor on his Blogoir:
A youthful Crawf asks me what I make of the sending to Libya of the 'Lockerbie bomber'.

Very difficult to say, because it's a fiendishly long and complicated story about which I know next to nothing on the inner detail.

My only professional diplomatic encounter with Libya came on the night in 1986 when US planes bombed Tripoli (in response to clear evidence linking the Libyan leadership to anti-American terrorism) after taking off from airfields in the UK to do so. I was the FCO Resident Clerk fielding a torrent of angry calls from the public. One of my first blog postings described the experience.

Two years later came the destruction of Pan Am 103 which crashed on and around Lockerbie. The finger of suspicion pointed at Libya. Sanctions were imposed.

Over the following years it all slowly changed.

The Cold War ended. Colonel Gadhafi's eccentric if not narcissistic Arab nationalism started to look a bit limp and self-indulgent compared to Islamist violence. Heavy sanctions on Libya took some sort of toll.

Then 9/11. President Bush gets tough. Very tough. Saddam is toppled then arrested and put on trial.

All this gave Colonel Gadhafi a lot to think about. Gadhafi decided that that the time had come to try something new.

A very private message was conveyed to a senior MI6 officer... Here is a vivid and well-sourced account of the whole story as seen from the US perspective.

The elements of a Big Deal emerged.

If Libya accepted responsibility for the destruction of Pan Am 103 and paid out compensation to the families of the victims, plus stopped playing with weapons of mass destruction, sanctions could be lifted and everything normalised. Why, Colonel Gadhafi could be respectable again.

And, basically, this is what has happened.

The Libyans wrote a letter to the UN Security Council in 2003 which, while carefully drafted, got as close as such a text is ever going to get to accepting responsibility for the atrocity. Sanctions were lifted, in stages.

And, in due course, Prime Minister Blair visited Libya. Relations were normalised and smoothed out, even if the colour scheme and rug weren't:

As a significant extra element in this story, two Libyans were surrendered to the British and put on trial for the bombing. One was convicted.

An exhaustive and exhausting expert blog by Professor Robert Black pores over the issues surrounding the less than satisfactory conviction of that man, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi.

My view(s)?

1 The decision made in Edinburgh to send a dying Al-Megrahi back to Libya falls, just about, within the scale of what is reasonable. But I would not have voted to do so, broadly for the reasons given by Liam Murray. Michael Binyon makes some trenchant points too.

2 The idea that London/HMG had nothing to do with the decision (ie that it was Scotland's alone to take) is obviously phoney. Hence the row now developing. No decision such as this would be taken in Scotland without a closely coordinated eye being kept in London on the manifold foreign policy aspects for the UK as a whole. See the Observer yesterday, not least this:

Meanwhile, details emerged of a second letter written by the Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis to the Scottish justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, confirming that there were no legal reasons not to let Megrahi go and concluding: "I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application."

3 If Al-Megrahi did not do it, there is now simply no chance of identifying, arresting and successfully prosecuting those who did. And in any case the really guilty terrorists were the people up the hierarchy in Libya (and/or elsewhere) who ordered the bombing, or gave a sly wink to those lesser villains who might do it.

4 Ignominious, embarrassing, perfidious or whatever you want to call it, maybe the whole thing is for the best, all things considered:

We and the Americans used a powerful and sustained policy of carrot and stick to bring Libya to accept responsibility for this horror, and pay compensation, and also renounce its weapons of mass destruction.
This is one of the biggest Western foreign policy achievments of our times (compare North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and so on ), and a huge step forward towards making Northern Africa a partner, not a foe.
Where Diplomacy meets Reality?