Lord Palmerston’s oft-summoned axiom about no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, was uttered in 1848 and serves to excuse all manner of political conduct. Alliances made, broken, mended and amended. Ask the negotiators at Brest-Litovsk. Or ask Tony Blair about a handshake that for many was unbearable to watch.
The hand Blair grasped was that of Muammar Qaddafi, the supreme leader of Libya, who, until Osama bin Laden usurped the title, was once terrorist instigator of the Western world. It was Qaddafi who engineered bombings in European cities, funded revolutionaries in Egypt and Sudan, bombed a discotheque in Germany that killed three U.S. Servicemen, funded the IRA against Britain, and, most infamously, was responsible for the 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, 189 of them Americans and many of these young students.
Britain had cut ties with Libya in 1984, after a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London killed a British policewoman. The U.S. had severed ties in 1986 and sent its navy into the Libyan Gulf of Sidra. Following the discotheque bombing, U.S. F-111’s were sent from England to strike facilities in Tripoli, flying the long way around because France refused permission for over-flights. (Even then.)
But months ago the political heirs of Lord Palmerston began quietly working with the Qaddafi regime. The Pan Am attack, and a similar one over Niger, had been more or less resolved with the conviction of a Libyan official out of Malta, now residing in a well-appointed jail in Scotland, and Qaddafi had agreed to pay millions in reparations to the families. He had more to give; a burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The British worked quietly, with U S. acquiescence, and in December, Qaddafi announced he was ready to renounce terror, and deep-six his mass destruction weaponry.
So it was that the United States had sent an assistant secretary of state to Tripoli, the highest level U.S. official to visit in 30 years. And so it was, near the end of March 2004, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived at a traditional Bedouin tent to shake the hand of Muammar Qaddafi. Ironically, it was a short trip across the Mediterranean from Spain where Blair had been consoling Spaniards over the train station terror bombings in Madrid.
The first British PM to go to Libya since Churchill in 1943, Blair said Britain will offer Libya a “new military relationship.” “We do not forget the past,” Blair said, “But we do try in the light of genuine changes happening to move beyond it.” As it happens, Royal Dutch Shell had beaten Blair to the tent, recently inking a $200 million gas exploration deal with Libya. United States petroleum interests are expected to follow. The White House sees the Qaddafi conversion as a fruit of the Iraqi war, Qaddafi not wanting to follow Saddam Hussein into some spider hole outside some Bedouin tent. And Libya’s foreign minister says Libya is with the West now in opposition to al Qaeda.
Still, there are those who cringed at that handshake. Survivors of those lost on Pan Am’s flight. F-111 pilots who flew the night skies of the Atlantic and Spain to get there in an April night in 1986. And hundreds hurt in airport incidents in Austria and Italy.
For them, and others whose memories do not dim, Lord Palmerston’s axiom is of no avail. It is too soon. A nod, perhaps. But a handshake?
Lord P. is also quoted as saying: “What is merit? The opinion one man entertains of another.”