As the long reign of Muammar Gaddafi comes under unprecedented pressure, questions must be asked about whether British politicians and business leaders were wise to be so keen to do business with his regime. Relations between the UK and Libya were severed in 1984, after someone opened fire from within the Libyan embassy in London and killed a young police constable, Yvonne Fletcher. They resumed only in 2004 after Gaddafi agreed to hand over to an international court two Libyans suspected of planting a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Before 2004, there was no question that the Libyan regime was a threat to the safety of British citizens. Though some have disputed that Libya and its agent, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, were the genuine perpetrators of the Lockerbie bomb, there is no disputing Gaddafi's support for groups seeking to achieve political ends by violent means, including the IRA. That ended when Tony Blair welcomed Gaddafi back into the international community after the Iraq war. Libya's renunciation of terrorism was, for Blair and others, an important by product of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Having seen what had happened to one Arab dictator who defied the West, Gaddafi appears to have decided that he would have to make an abrupt change in Libyan foreign policy if he was to survive.
What followed was more than just the formal resumption of diplomatic relations. There were major trade deals, including the opening of Libya's oilfields to BP. In time, al-Megrahi was released. And there seemed to be a personal rapport between Gaddafi and Tony Blair, who visited Libya as recently as June 2010.
Was it worth it? Diplomats have to deal with governments as they find them, even putrescent dictatorships, and there were immediate benefits in reopening relations with Libya in 2004. But there is a distinction between being on speaking terms and being friends. Once the door was opened, too many Britons – Tony Blair among them – rushed in eagerly, lured by the prospect of lucrative trade with an oil-rich country. As the regime in Tripoli wobbles, they may come to regret their haste.