Assurances were given

Britain's cosying up to the Gaddafi regime may have happened under Labour, and Tony Blair, with his "Dear Muammar" and his pseudo-Islamic salutations, may have been a simperingly enthusiastic licker of the Colonel's blood-bespattered posterior, but the shoddy deals now being exposed in Libya bear the unmistakeable stamp of traditional Foreign Office cynicism.

Take, for example, the rendition in 2004, through the good offices of the CIA but with British intelligence making the whole thing possible, of Abdul Hakim Belhaj. Embarrassingly, Abdul Hakim Belhaj turned out years later to be a key figure in the revolt that (with NATO backing) has toppled Gaddafi, but at the time he was just another dissident - someone, moreover, who could be portrayed as having "links" with the wider world of Al Qaeda-style terrorism. He was only ever interested in Libya, but the weird psychology of the War on Terror meant that Gaddafi's enemies for a time became ours. And anyway, he was a pawn in a greater game.

Except of course that - Torture Convention and all that - we're not really supposed to hand people over to foreign governments who are in the business of pulling out their fingernails or electrifying their genitals. It's not just that it's not nice - it also happens to be illegal. But don't worry, there's a way round that little problem:

Assurances were sought and received that the suspect would not be mistreated and ministerial approval at Secretary of State level was received, sources said.

Aha, assurances were sought. So that's all right then. No British complicity in torture at all. Assurances were sought. Assurances were received.

It's enough for Gaddafi's men to have promised they wouldn't torture their detainee, once he "arrived safely" - as MI6's Sir Mark Allen put it in one of his chatty letters to Moussa Koussa. The Libyans wouldn't lie, would they? They wouldn't be in the business of giving "assurances" that turned out to be worthless, not our allies, not our new bestest friend Muammar.

Were the British security services so staggeringly naive that they actually believed these assurances? It's hard to imagine. But that doesn't mean that the assurances were worthless. They were (or so officials would have hoped) legally exculpatory. The seeking of assurances was not a means of exercising pressure on the Libyan government, still less a way of preventing torture from actually taking place. It wasn't even about Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his fate after his "safe arrival" in Tripoli. It was a ritualistic dance - like so much in bureaucratic life - performed for the benefit of the assurance seekers themselves. The aim British authorities in seeking assurances wasn't to prevent torture. It was merely to receive assurances.

This sort of institutionalised cynicism, it may be felt, is defensible if it for the higher good. By the higher good I obviously don't mean the ability of BP - for whom Sir Mark Allen went to work shortly after leaving MI6 - to win juicy oil contracts. Of course not. I mean freedom and democracy, regional stability, persuading the Colonel to give up his WMDs, that sort of thing. As the wise and urbane former ambassador Charles Crawford puts it:

The key thing to understand in all this is that there are only two basic choices available to democracies when it comes to dealing with odious regimes: Isolation, or Engagement. And that both can have perverse consequences, because it is impossible to deal with perverse regimes without some perverse outcomes...

Above all, if you engage with dirty people, how to avoid some of their dirt ending up on you? The promise of Engagement is that it offers the hope of slowly but surely changing things for the better; the danger is that while you are doing that, the key leaders of the regime in fact get far richer and learn how to be oppressive in new, cleverer ways.


...without outside democratic engagement (and the high-level civilisational rewards which rightly flow to the regime for behaving in a less extreme way) the chances of reducing Libyan torture at all (and thereby opening some small new space for opposition trends) are hugely reduced.

What is wrong with this analysis, which draws on so much experience, is so rational and unsentimental and, for want of a better word, plausible? One answer is that it leads, all too often, to embarrassments like the one the British government now finds itself in. Someone that British intelligence knowingly (assurances or no assurances) handed over to Gaddafi's torturers ends up in a position of power and our politicians and diplomats look grubby. The country's interests are damaged as a result.

Revolutions invariably take practitioners of realpolitik by surprised. The more ruthlessly analytical, the more unsentimentally realistic they consider themselves to be, the less they seem able to imagine the overthrow of the brutal dictatorships with which they do their Machiavellian business. Events catch them napping.

On the day that Julius II was elected, Cesare Borgia told me that he had thought of everything that might occur at the death of his father the Pope, and had provided a remedy for all, except that he had never anticipated that, when the death did happen, he himself would be at death's door.


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