Tony Blair was right to go to Libya, but should keep a cool head in the relationship

It would be a trap to identify the West with a Muslim leader who has founded secularism on the basis of repression
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The Independent Online

Two cheers for Tony Blair. His handshake with Gaddafi deserves support and probably needs it, as it will earn criticism by the ton from both reactionary and liberal sources. There was a touch of personal transference when the Prime Minister praised Gaddafi for courage, as he himself needed a lot more courage to make the visit than his host did in receiving him.

Two cheers for Tony Blair. His handshake with Gaddafi deserves support and probably needs it, as it will earn criticism by the ton from both reactionary and liberal sources. There was a touch of personal transference when the Prime Minister praised Gaddafi for courage, as he himself needed a lot more courage to make the visit than his host did in receiving him.

The first cheer is to welcome an international initiative by Britain that was not made in Washington. The rapprochement with Libya is a development in which our Foreign Office has been at the forefront, with the Bush Administration a nervous onlooker from the shadows. It is also an initiative that refreshingly contrasts with the policies of Lady Thatcher, who agreed to the use of British bases for an assassination attempt by the US on the very man whom Tony Blair greeted yesterday. Michael Howard showed how little he has left behind the prejudices of his former patron when he went on the radio to air his knee-jerk opposition to moving on from flat hostility to Gaddafi.

A second cheer is appropriate because Tony Blair was right to take the risk and to make the visit. The risks of tangling with such an unpredictable personality were real. The Number 10 image-makers must have been on valium all week with worry over what gem Colonel Gaddafi might offer the travelling British press pack. In the event, his observation that Tony Blair is still young will go down as one of his more banal sallies. Even that he turned up on time must have been a relief, as Gaddafi's working habits are famously nocturnal.

Yet the risks were worth taking. The Prime Minister is manifestly right to argue that when a national leader has decided to renounce proliferation and accept international inspection, we should be willing to respond by re- admitting him to the community of nations. If Gaddafi is not rewarded for good behaviour, then nobody else is likely to follow his example. We cannot found a cohesive international community on the systematic intimidation favoured by the Bush Administration, boastfully expressed by John Bolton, one of his protégés at the State Department, in the phrase, "I do not do carrots."

Unfortunately there are a couple of good reasons why the third cheer dies in the throat. The first is that many of us find it difficult to cheer Tony Blair's argument that his progress with Libya justifies his invasion of Iraq. It is understandable that he would want to make that claim, as other justifications for Iraq are proving hard to come by, but that does not make it any more convincing. To justify the invasion of Iraq, where there were no weapons of mass destruction, by announcing that all the time such weapons existed in a quite different country, surely deepens rather than explains the perplexing question why they were so preoccupied with Iraq.

It is claimed that Gaddafi's decision to cut a deal demonstrates that he was worried that he would be the next victim of what is now described as Blair's muscular foreign policy. The reality is that the US and UK have exhausted their military reserves in conquering and occupying Iraq, and both have certainly bottomed out domestic willingness to support any more military adventures. The Pentagon may well have intended the assault on Iraq to inspire fear in recalcitrant leaders that they might be next, but the consequence of the bloody, sapping occupation of Iraq and its domestic controversy is that the White House is less able to threaten anyone else. Gaddafi has probably never been under less threat of US military action than at the moment when he abandoned his nuclear programme with the engagingly honest observation, "It cost too much money."

Gaddafi had already demonstrated over a long period of time a readiness to negotiate his way back on to the international stage. It is six years since, as Foreign Secretary, I opened overtures for the trial of the Lockerbie accused in a third country. At the time many predicted that Gaddafi would never surrender the suspects, and I myself was not absolutely confident I could prove them wrong. In the event it became evident quite quickly that Gaddafi was genuinely interested in securing closure, although getting him to sign on the line required the patience of St Augustine.

The other reason for withholding a third cheer is that we may have resolved our differences with Gaddafi, but we should not overlook the fact that his own people still have a long list of differences with him on human rights and democratic governance. Gaddafi claims to have handed over formal power to the people, but curiously the baroque structure he has built for consultation through local communes invariably produces agreement with his own decisions.

However, we cannot express our concerns over human rights if we refuse to talk to those whose practices worry us most. Nothing suits better those regimes that fall short on democratic standards than being left in isolation. The abuse of human rights in Libya is an added reason for dialogue with Gaddafi, not an argument for leaving him alone to get on with oppression untroubled by any contact with the outside world.

It does, though, call for some realism about the limitations on any relationship with him. There has been much excited talk about embracing Gaddafi in a common cause in defeating al-Qa'ida. It is certainly true that Gaddafi is staunchly opposed to the fundamentalists - and they to him - and therefore tempting to see in him an ally. It would, though, be a trap to identify the West too closely with a Muslim leader who has founded secularism on the basis of repression. That only plays to the appeal of the fundamentalists to the dispossessed. If we are serious about reaching an accommodation with the Muslim peoples and not just the regimes who rule them, we need to find partners who have developed acceptable, inclusivist models of governance. Gaddafi is not one of them.

A touch of restraint in the language with which we described our partnership would therefore have been advisable, and also caution about the extent of our co-operation. There can be no logical grounds for arguing that business executives should not follow where it is acceptable for the Prime Minister to tread, and wider commercial exposure to the outside world may inspire rather than inhibit demands for political change in Libya.

Training or arming Gaddafi's army is another matter. The prime purpose of his military apparatus is to suppress political change in their own country, and in the recent past they have shown an uncomfortable readiness to share their training with the rebel forces that have destabilised the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Our hand of partnership should not be extended in the officers' mess room.

By all means let us toast the diplomatic breakthrough that has transformed Gaddafi from opponent into partner, but let us keep a clear head on the limits of our relationship. The choice of camel's milk for yesterday's beverage in the desert tent seems an appropriately sober drink.

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