This might not seem the moment to dwell on detail as history’s grand panoply unfolds in the Middle East with a sweep that seems comparable to an earlier Arab revolt as Ottoman rule crumbled and European powers redrew the maps of empire almost a century ago.
The longstanding leaders of Tunisia and Egypt are gone. Libyans have turned against four decades of suffocating, erratic dictatorship by Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The yearning for change has sizzled elsewhere.
With no foreigners at their side to counsel or dictate – no T.E. Lawrence or Winston Churchill, no George W. Bush or Tony Blair – some of these modern-day revolutionaries have wrought in weeks what the US-led armies in Iraq and Afghanistan have sought to do for years with uncertain results.
The bloodiest and most brutal contest between power and people is in Libya, where Gaddafi has reverted to type, full of braggadocio and guile, again the outcast whose grand designs once led him to sponsor groups the West called terrorists in places like Northern Ireland, Africa and the Middle East.
But those big, broad issues of democracy and renewal cannot quite cloak the nagging question of how the West dealt with the Libyan leader over many years, escorting him into a kind of respectability that offered commercial advantage for those prepared to make the pilgrimage to his Bedouin tent – the accolade he sought from a world that once spurned him. And it is in Britain that the ambiguities have seemed increasingly acute in the years since a Pan Am jumbo jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people, most of them Americans.
It was Britain that joined with the United States in 2003 to persuade Gaddafi to renounce terrorism and an ambitious nuclear programme – exacting a high price for a pathway out of isolation.
And it was from Britain that Abdel Baset Ali Al Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent and the only man convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, won early release to return home from a Scottish prison in 2009 – to cries of horror from the families of victims and in the face of protests from President Barack Obama.
The Libyan relationship with the outside world has undergone many metamorphoses. In 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation and later offered lesser sums for other acts of terrorism.
A year later, with the US invasion of Iraq fresh in the region’s memory, Gaddafi turned over his cache of nuclear technology – and briefly became a Western poster boy for the benefits of nonproliferation. In return, trade embargoes were lifted, and, in 2006, the United States announced the restoration of diplomatic relations.
But the relationship had another phase to run in Britain, largely related to the Libyan reserves of oil. In 2007, Blair, then the British prime minister, visited Tripoli to open negotiations on a prisoner transfer agreement – and to witness the signing of an oil exploration deal between BP and the Libyan authorities.
Those two strands of British diplomacy remained interwoven as Libya became ever more strident in its demand for the repatriation of Megrahi, who was supposed to serve a life sentence but was freed on compassionate grounds after he was found to have prostate cancer and given only three months to live.
About 18 months later, as the Libyan upheaval began, Megrahi was still alive.
The precise machinations behind his homecoming remain murky. But in a report last month, a senior British official, Sir Gus O’Donnell, formally acknowledged that BP had lobbied the British government in pursuit of its oil interests and the British government, in turn, resolved to “do all it could to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish government” for Megrahi’s release.
The blend of diplomacy and commerce is as old as – if not older than – Britain’s colonial history, and the calculation underlying Blair’s pilgrimage in 2007 found an all-too-familiar echo in a visit to the Middle East last month by the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Much as Blair campaigned with Bush to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, Cameron has urged muscular methods to overturn Gaddafi.
Yet, when he toured Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman last month, Cameron took with him representatives of eight British arms manufacturers, seeking deals in a region where autocrats might well loose their armies against their foes, as the Libyan has done in recent weeks.
“If we choose to make the Arabs’ path harder by arming their oppressors, fine, but we should not proclaim ‘liberal interventionism,” the columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian. “If we proclaim interventionism, we should not sell weapons. Meddling in other people’s business is rarely wise. Two-faced meddling is hypocrisy.”
Not only that, for many years, Western leaders sought to build a regional stability by supporting iron-fisted rulers from Tripoli to Baghdad. The legacy, though, has been a far greater sense of uncertainty; the future seems as opaque as the past was built on shifting sands.
Perhaps, though, there was another question: Would the ouster of Gaddafi, if it happened, produce some kind of peace for those who lost relatives in the Lockerbie killings and who hold him accountable?
In some ways, the Libyan leader’s suppression of revolt these past weeks has brought his relationship with the outside world full circle.
© IHT Alan Cowell