In an interview in today's Independent on Sunday, headlined "Libya can't trust Blair says rebels' ambassador to UK", Libya's new ambassador in London Mahmud Nacua says the Libyan people are "not satisfied" with the closeness of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Colonel Gaddafi. In contrast he praises "courageous" Prime Minister David Cameron. He also criticises the Scottish government's release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
The interviewer Matt Chorley, political correspondent of the Indie on Sunday, writes: "The 74-year-old poet and academic, who has lived in the UK for 23 years, hopes to use his new ambassadorial role to rebuild relations between Britain and his homeland."
The interview put me in mind of comments made on the Blair-Gaddafi relationship by the three panellists at the event Britain and Libya: What Does the Future Hold? organised last month at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, by the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU).
The panellists were Libyan historian and writer Dr Faraj Najem, director of Studies and Academic Research at Grafton College of Management Sciences; former British Ambassador to Libya Sir Richard Dalton, now an associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa programme; and Professor George Joffe, professorial research fellow at the Global Policy Institute, research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, and research fellow and director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Qatar.
During the Q&A session, the panellists were asked this question: Tony Blair likes to say “history will be my judge” – how is history going to judge Tony Blair and Libya, and then his successor and the whole Megrahi thing – isn’t this going to be the elephant in the room even after liberation, even after Britain's current military involvement in Libya?
The Libyan panellist saw things differently from his two co-panellists. Dr Najem said: "Tony Blair. Bless him. He’s a name synonymous with Gaddafi in the Libyan psyche... I would love to see him next to Gaddafi in the ICC (International Criminal Court) because he’s someone who is equally just as much a culprit as Gaddafi. He was the one who was instrumental in rehabilitating Gaddafi. It was a blemish on Western democracy, and particularly Britain, when Tony Blair went into the tent and embraced Gaddafi and kissed him on the cheek [in 2007]. How could you kiss someone like him? It just revolts you. But also to tell us that this is after all a tamed monster that we can do business with... I’d love to see Blair talking on the issue because he has been conspicuously absent from the whole thing because he knows he and his cronies were..."
When Sir Richard Dalton interjected: "I must be one of his [Blair's] cronies then!" Dr Najem said: "No, no, you are a civil servant so I will forgive you – I’m talking about the policy makers, Peter Mandelson and everyone else."
Sir Richard Dalton, who played a key role in the Libyan-British rapprochement when he was ambassador in 1999-2003, stoutly defended the British record of dealings with the Gaddafi regime. "Don’t over-emphasise Tony Blair’s role," he said. "The Libyans began the business of improving their international relationships in the mid-1990s and it’s possible to argue that they rehabilitated themselves through dealing successively with these 'legacy issues' – these were hot –button issues, whether it was assistance to the IRA, or supporting Abu Nidal, their attitude to Israel, you can see any number of cases where the Libyans have shifted their behaviour – it culminated, it didn’t start with, the British-American diplomatic effort to achieve the surrender of Libya’s embryonic nuclear weapons programme and associated material.
"So Tony Blair came very late to the game. We proceeded incredibly cautiously with Libya. We didn’t invite our ministers to go for three years after the resumption of diplomatic relations in 1999 and we didn’t send our Prime Minister until a further two years down the line. And many many years after our fellow Europeans had been sending their presidents and prime ministers in a queue to shake the dear leader’s hand.
"And that was because of the absence of a clear political consensus in the UK that we should rush into the embrace until we’d got a solid settlement of our disputes ... and on the whole that strategy worked. Now there is an argument that we shouldn’t have even have embarked on that, that this person [Gaddafi] is so far beyond the pale that we should simply eschew his country, but that would have been to betray a lot of solid British interests and that translates into jobs, yes, and security, yes, and furthermore it would be completely at odds with the policy we adopt internationally in general. International relations 101, as the Americans say, is that you have to deal with regimes which you fundamentally dislike and disapprove of. I can think of so many examples in my lifetime have borne this out, starting with the Soviet Union."
George Joffe said: I don’t really have very much to add – I can’t comment on Tony Blair because of my well known antipathy - but apart from that I do think we have to take what Sir Richard Dalton says seriously. Because actually Libya made a quite conscious set of policy decisions very early on, and I’d put them even earlier than the mid-1990s, I think they actually began in the late 1980s, that it had to rehabilitate its relationships – and it had to find ways of doing it.
"The regime demonstrated a quite remarkable opportunism in the way in which it did that. And so in a way I think Mr Blair came on the coattails of that – the fact that the manifestation of his interest was not the most appealing is perhaps not surprising. If you looking for an area in which he had a direct effect on policy it’s not so much in Libya case, it’s in the case of Iraq – and that’s the really crucial thing, if you’re looking for a reason to blame him as an individual that’s what you can blame him for. But again I have to say you know arguing politics simply in terms of personalities is a little dangerous so I think we need to look at the Libyan case really in the round to understand what really happened."