The Pursuit of Knowledge

Sucking Up to Libya

By 11.1.09

Send to Kindle

The Libyan dictatorship follows a pattern recognizable elsewhere in the Arab world. A strong and ruthless leader, surrounded by well-rewarded henchmen, legitimizes his original coup d'état as  a "revolution" that allegedly conferred power by popular request. The "revolution" has been decked out in socialist colors, with an "Arab nationalist" tinge, and has been supported by left-wing opinion in the West, which has made full diplomatic room for the resulting tyranny. There has been no vote either before or after the seizure of power, and opposition meanwhile has been ruthlessly silenced, with the population kept in order by an ubiquitous secret police. Support from other "revolutionary" governments -- and especially from the Soviet empire while it lasted -- has provided the technical know-how required to crush dissent and to produce a semblance of modernity. The resulting government is without any process for handing over power, and so becomes a hereditary monarchy in all but name -- as in Syria, Libya, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It is without a genuine rule of law, property rights are uncertain and subject to arbitrary confiscation, and the whole is kept in being by ruthless force.

The discovery of fossil fuels would have been less of a disaster for mankind had they not been found beneath fossil communities. Alas, however, thanks to oil we in the West have been tempted to deal with loathsome satrapies like Saudi Arabia and to suck up to petty tyrants all over the Middle East. Every now and then a note of principle is struck, as when Mrs. Thatcher broke off diplomatic relations with Syria and Libya and when President Reagan ordered the bombing of Qaddafi's palace in Tripoli. And just possibly President George W. Bush's decision to complete the work that his father had started in the matter of Iraq has set a precedent that may lead to a more defiant approach to other Middle Eastern tyrannies.

But I doubt it. As the example of Libya shows, the temptation offered by oil can override every consideration of principle. A dictatorship that has specialized in terrorism, has supplied arms and resources to the IRA and ETA, has played an active part in the destabilization of Lebanon, has run its embassies abroad as assassination clinics, and that planned and executed the most despicable of all recent terrorist acts prior to the atrocities of 9/11 has proved to be sitting on a vast reservoir of oil. To get at this oil we must have diplomatic relations with the criminals who control access to it. And to do this we must release the only Libyan terrorist who has been effectively brought to justice, for his part in the bombing that killed 270 people, most of them Americans, over Lockerbie.

This situation is not of a new or unusual kind. Realpolitik repeatedly requires statesmen to qualify moral and political principles in order to achieve goals judged to be vital to the national interest. To do this is not to ignore morality, but to balance one moral requirement against another: the requirement of principle against the duty to safeguard the nation. And vast is the literature of moral and political philosophy devoted to dilemmas of this kind. Nevertheless, the scandal caused by the Scottish and British governments' handling of the Lockerbie affair is entirely justified, since it reflects other and more sinister features of the case.

First, there has been a continual stream of lies and evasions, by politicians seeking to deny that any "deal" had been struck with the Libyan government. Second, there has been the continuing pretense over 12 years that Megrahi, the man found guilty in the bombing, was not acting as an agent of the Libyan government, and that the bombing was not an act of war that demanded retaliation. The very fact that the "deal" with the Libyan government involved Megrahi's release gave the lie to this deception. And of course the official hero's welcome that Megrahi received was entirely to be expected: he had not, in Libyan eyes, committed a crime, but acted under orders and been captured by the enemy. Since his release he has been paraded before a meeting of the Organization for African Unity, a group of unelected "members of parliament" representing tin-pot dictatorships around Africa which was meeting in Libya, and received a standing ovation from politicians who declare him to be the "victim of double standards," having no standards whatsoever of their own. The affair has therefore exposed the fundamental weakness of the Western nations today -- that they refuse to recognize acts of war when they are themselves the target.

Third, there has been the contempt shown to the United States, which was assured that Megrahi would serve out his term. The outrage caused in America is understandable, and would have deterred any government other than our current Labour government, which sees no particular virtue in the special relationship and has no real sense of what is at stake in the long-standing unwritten alliance of the English-speaking peoples. Now it is true that Americans have not, in the past, been as solid on the terrorism question as they are today, have lent massive support to the IRA and not bothered very much about what is done with the huge amounts of money raised in this country by Middle Eastern "charities." The British have rightly resented this in the past. But 9/11 changed all that, and in any case the crime committed over Lockerbie was aimed explicitly at America, and impacted on the very heart of the special relationship. Even if Realpolitik demands some kind of accommodation with the Libyan tyrant, it should not be achieved by jeopardizing a relationship on which the entire foreign policy of Britain depends.

So far as can be understood through all the lies and half-truths that have emerged from the British government, the goal of the deal with Qaddafi was to create an opening for British Petroleum in Libya. If this is true, then it can only further underline the effect that oil has had on the moral fiber of our society -- an effect far worse than that of alcohol. Instead of doing what our government has long been promising, and looking for alternative sources of energy, the old enslavement to fossil fuels continues to dictate both foreign and domestic policy. Once BP has been installed in Libya it will become hostage to Qaddafi, liable at any time to be nationalized like the Western oil companies that established themselves in Venezuela, and constantly pleading within the British government to go softly with the Libyan regime. And the exploitation of the Libyan oil fields will delay by another decade the move on which, in my view, the continued safety and prosperity of the West now depends, namely a comprehensive switch to nuclear power.

There is one aspect of the case that is apt to puzzle Americans, and that is the role of Scotland
in producing an outcome that has humiliated the British as a whole. Because the original crime took place over Scotland it was judged in the Scottish courts. Scots law is as old as the law of England, but its roots are different. It does not derive, as English and American law derive, from the common law of the Anglo-Saxons, but from Roman law. Despite the Act of Union that joined our two kingdoms three centuries ago, the Scots have retained their own civil and criminal jurisdiction. There was no way that the British parliament could influence the decision to release Megrahi, which was a decision justified by Scots law.

Furthermore, the Scots have their own parliament, which can make executive decisions without consulting the relevant ministers in Westminster. This parliament was established by the Labour Party as a means to neutralize the movement for Scottish independence, which remains the most dangerous of the many threats currently faced by New Labour. Without the Scottish vote the Labour Party could not form a government in Westminster. It relies upon the legacy of Celtic resentment at every election, and its own leadership shares that resentment and sees its primary purpose in office as one of oppressing and chastising the English: hence the Labour Party opposes the idea of an English parliament as vehemently as it has supported the establishment of separate legislatures in Scotland and Wales. The prime minister and the majority of his cabinet are either Scottish or educated in Scotland. And in the Megrahi affair they discerned an opportunity to show that the Scots had achieved all the independence they
had wanted, and at the same to display the solidarity with Scotland that is needed if the Scots are to vote Labour in the next general election.

It all went badly wrong, of course. For the Scottish people, even if they repeatedly make the mistake of voting Labour, are far more averse to Middle Eastern terrorism than they are to government by the English (which means, in effect, government by the Tory party). The Labour Party is now losing popularity in its most important power base, at the very moment when the movement for independence is being revived -- a movement that would finally liberate the English from the Scottish yoke and enable them to rebuild what remains of their country. That this liberation should have been initiated by Colonel Qaddafi is only one of the many remarkable achievements of that particular madman. But let us not praise him for it, and instead remember the deep complicity that has existed between the political left and Middle Eastern terrorism. That complicity is the real reason why Tony Blair found no obstacle to shaking hands with Qaddafi, and why, in the conflicts that occur in the Middle East, the left is so often disposed to side with our enemies, regardless of how they behave.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.