Sometimes, in international diplomacy, the words that people utter are all that counts. And sometimes it does not matter much what they say; just the fact that they are talking is significant in itself.
Last Thursday afternoon, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since he seized power in a military coup 34 years ago, was waiting in the celebrated tent that he uses as a mobile headquarters when his telephone rang. It was Tony Blair on the line.
The details of their conversation, conducted through an English and an Arab interpreter, are pretty mundane. They were talking about words - who was going to say them, when, and what exactly. What mattered was that the British Prime Minister was talking directly to an Arab ruler who was once such an international pariah that the British government collaborated in an attempt to kill him.
Col Gaddafi has been seeking for several years to end the diplomatic and commercial isolation of his country, and to do that he was prepared to risk losing face by dealing with old enemies. The diplomacy entered into a new, frantic phase on Tuesday, when a delegation of three leading Libyan officials headed by the country's chief of intelligence, Musa Kusa, arrived in London.
They were taken to the Traveller's Club, where they spent six hours locked in intensive talks with a team of British diplomats and intelligence chiefs, headed by William Ehrman, director of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office.
The British team had their negotiating instructions, which came out of a meeting between Tony Blair and Jack Straw during a lull in the previous weekend's EU summit in Brussels. Mr Blair, who had discussed Libya with George Bush during his state visit earlier in the month, had decided on a deal with Col Gaddafi. Britain would offer economic benefits, including openings for Libyan students at British universities, if the Libyans would join Mr Blair's crusade to eliminate any weapons of mass destruction that might fall into terrorist hands.
Since the Britons did not know exactly what weapons the Libyans had, if any, they needed a clear and sweeping promise to allow inspectors to see whatever was there, and supervise its disposal.
The British accepted the Libyan proposal that their Foreign Minister, Abdel Rahman Shalqam would make the announcement first, and that Col Gaddafi would endorse it afterwards. There followed three days of nerve- jangling choreography, as drafts buzzed back and forth between Tripoli, London and Washington. On Thursday morning, the British negotiating team was called in for a conference with Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Tony Blair's foreign affairs adviser, who agreed that the Prime Minister would take the ground-breaking step of talking to the Libyan leader in person that afternoon.
The following day, the Foreign Office was sent what was meant to be the definitive version of the Libyan announcement. This was passed to Sir Nigel, in Downing Street, who forwarded it to George Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in Washington. She came back saying the draft was not good enough. It promised that the Libyans would open their "materials and equipment" to international inspection; Washington wanted to see the word "programmes" there, too. This set off another exchange.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair was in his Sedgefield constituency holding one of the series of public meetings that make up what he calls his Big Conversation. David Hill, his director of communications, had hoped that this would get around the problem of how to ensure that there were TV cameras at the ready when the news broke, without letting the information leak out prematurely. Unfortunately for Mr Hill, the Big Conversation came to an end and the camera crews packed their equipment away - and still no word from the Foreign Office.
In Whitehall, meanwhile, they were just as anxiously monitoring the Libyan media, waiting to hear that the Foreign Minister had spoken. They were expecting the announcement early in the evening, but it appears that there was a vital football match in progress in Libya, and Mr Shalqam waited until after the final whistle before releasing his announcement at about 9pm British time. Then the translators had to get to work, and senior staff at the Foreign Office had to check that the statement was exactly as agreed. At last, at about 9.55pm, Mr Hill received the call he had awaiting - just five minutes before the start of the BBC's main news bulletin.
Fifteen years ago today, when a PanAm flight bound for the US came down on Lockerbie, it was almost unthinkable that any British leader would ever deal directly with Col Gaddafi. The Libyan embassy in London had been closed since a shot fired from inside the building killed a police woman, Yvonne Fletcher, in 1984. Two years later, Margaret Thatcher gave Ronald Reagan permission to use Britain as a launch pad for an airstrike on Tripoli, which killed Col Gaddafi's daughter. On 21 December 1988, 270 people died in the Lockerbie bomb, planted, it was claimed, by the Libyans.
It was only after the Labour government came to office in 1997 that serious talks began with Libya, on the issue of whether two men accused of the Lockerbie outrage should be handed over for trial in the West. The outcome was that one man was acquitted, while the other is now serving a life sentence in Scotland. He has been told he must wait 27 years before his release. But for Col Gaddafi, a return to the international community is now imminent.
The background Draconian sanctions failed to tame the rogue state linked to Lockerbie bomb, 15 years ago today
By Raymond Whitaker
How the world has changed. For most of the 34 years Muammar Gaddafi has ruled Libya, he has been seen as a far greater threat to the world than Saddam Hussein.
If anyone could be called a forerunner to Osama bin Laden, it is Libya's eccentric leader, who used the country's oil wealth to promote his misty ideas of Arab socialism and world revolution through most of the 1970s and 1980s. He boasted that Libya was seeking nuclear weapons to counterbalance Israel, and - unlike Saddam - sought to declare himself leader of the Arab world. There is little doubt he used mustard gas against fighters in Chad in 1987, when he intervened in his neighbour's civil war.
Yet it is the al-Qa'ida founder who is a fugitive and the deposed Iraqi president who is facing trial for his life, both thanks to American military action, while Col Gaddafi looks forward to the resumption of full diplomatic and trading relations with the US.
In the mid-1980s, war with the US seemed possible after American warplanes sank two Libyan vessels in the Mediterranean and staged bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi. The clashes followed terror attacks in Rome, Vienna and Berlin in which Libya was implicated. Britain had already suspended diplomatic relations with Tripoli following the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, killed by shots fired from the Libyan embassy in St James's Square in 1984.
When a Pan Am jumbo jet was blown up over Lockerbie four years later, killing 270 people, suspicion did not immediately fall on Libya. In 1989, however, a similar bombing destroyed a French airliner over Niger, and Libya was soon the only suspect for both attacks. In 1992 the UN Security Council imposed draconian sanctions on the regime.
Those sanctions have been removed since Libya accepted responsibility for Lockerbie. Britain has restored full diplomatic relations, and the US is expected to follow suit after lifting its own sanctions. Tripoli will finally have emerged from its isolation.
Friday's announcement appears to show that Col Gaddafi has at last come to his senses, but the truth is far more complicated. For one thing, he has never been consistent. Despite his pretensions to leadership of the Arab world, he supported non-Arab Iran in its long war with Iraq, because of US backing for Saddam. Despite his hatred of Israel, in 1995 he expelled thousands of Palestinians who had taken refuge in Libya. All that remains constant is his quirkiness - he lives in army barracks or a tent much of the time, and surrounds himself with female bodyguards, something which raises eyebrows among Arabs.
In the view of Glen Rangwala, a Cambridge University expert on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Col Gaddafi's decision to abandon his maverick stance dates back to the late 1980s, when an economic crisis in Libya forced him to seek better relations with the West. "In some ways it has taken the US and Britain 15 years to catch up with his change of tack," said Dr Rangwala.
The academic believes that Libya's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon may have been more rhetorical than actual until the 1990s, and that the imposition of UN sanctions in 1992, far from acting as a deterrent, could have fuelled the drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction. "The outcome shows that patient diplomacy works," he says. "This helps the US and Britain regain credibility they lost in the Iraq war. The lesson of that for states like Syria and Iran was that co-operation was pointless if you were going to be attacked anyway. What has happened with Libya makes it clear that there is still a reason to negotiate."Reuse content