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Tony Blair and the Gaddafis – Are the UK Media Playing Fair?

December 3, 2011

You have a brutal dictator who – directly or indirectly – has stirred up trouble in Africa, supplied arms and explosives to the Irish Republican Army, attempted to assassinate the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, blown up a Pan Am jet over Scotland and is actively engaged in building an arsenal of chemical and nuclear weapons.

For one reason or another, he decides to turn over a new leaf. He abandons his WMD programmes, opens up his country to Western oil interests and compensates the victims of the Lockerbie bombing in return for the lifting of economic sanctions against his country. Although he remains brutal in his suppression of dissent in his own country, he ceases to be a threat to his neighbours in his region. By all appearances, he is as securely entrenched as any dictator in the Middle East and North Africa.

His son and heir apparent gives the impression that he is in favour of moving his country towards democracy. He reaches out to Western leaders, donates money to a famous business school where he has studied for a PhD and spends much time rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, including royalty and senior figures in the British government.

Come the Arab Spring, the rebellion in his country takes hold, and his family closes ranks. With military assistance from the West, the rebels prevail, the dictator is killed and the son is captured trying to escape from the country.

The current circumstances of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi are a long way from the halcyon days when he counted Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson as a personal friends, and held a lavish birthday party in Montenegro with royals and Russian oligarchs as his guests.

Today, the media, especially in the UK, are speculating with gleeful amnesia what secrets Seif has up his sleeve to embarrass Blair and others because of their links to the regime that so brutally dealt with its rebellious citizens in its death throes.

Apart from circumstantial evidence that the release by the Scottish authorities of Abdulbasit Megrahi, the Libyan official convicted in Scotland for the Lockerbie bombing, was connected with oil deals for BP, and that Megrahi’s release was staged-managed by the British government at arms-length, no improper act by any British politician in connection with the Gaddafis has ever been substantiated.

I find it offensive that elements of the British press should smear Blair by implication because of his “cosying up” to Seif and his father. Is it not possible that Blair was acting in what he felt was the best interests of his country in attempting to coax Gaddafi into a more politically moderate stance, and in encouraging Seif to use his influence in order to bring about a less troublesome and oppressive regime in Libya?

Should the British press not give the former Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt as to his motives in cultivating the Gaddafis, instead of gloating over Seif’s return to his “true colours” during the civil war in Libya? The implication of this thinking is that Western democracies should have nothing to do with brutal dictators, even if those dictators show signs of mending their ways. The implication is that Hillary Clinton should certainly not have visited  Burma this week to meet with the generals who have oppressed the Burmese opposition for fifty. And there would be no dialogue with Zimbabwe, North Korea and – most significantly – with Iran.

Should Colonel Gaddafi have died in his bed, and Seif had brought about a more democratic and less oppressive government in Libya, would not the actions of Blair and his successors have been hailed as a triumph of diplomacy over force? It is conceivable that this would have happened, and 50,000 Libyans would not have died and countless others would not have ended up maimed in the vicious conflict of 2011.

Political leaders sometimes have to do deals with nasty people while holding their noses. If such deals are done in good faith and for the common good, it not always fair to criticise those who did the deals retrospectively on the basis of subsequent events.

You could even argue that the LSE, by allowing Seif to study for his PhD, may have had an influence on Seif’s moderate stance. The LSE has properly come in for severe criticism for accepting money from Seif’s foundation. But again, such criticism was only levelled once the dice were loaded against his father’s regime. A recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail, Blair government tried to get Saif a place at Oxford… but he wasn’t bright enough is typical of several reports, emanating mainly from the right wing press. It focuses on the circumstances of his PhD, but manages to drag Blair into the general opprobrium by noting that his government tried to put pressure on Oxford University to grant Seif a place

I am not saying that Sief was a warm and cuddly person, or that his statements criticising the lack of democracy in Libya were sincere. But for the British media to use the demise of the Gaddafis to trash Blair’s reputation without the evidence to justify their sentiments is irresponsible and unjust.

Tony Blair’s actions as Prime Minister are of course subject to public scrutiny. And indeed a public inquiry is currently preparing its report into the circumstances of the 2003 Iraq war. Blair’s role may or may not come in for criticism in that report. But the innuendo and implications of reporting on Seif’s links with the UK seems to be part of a wider agenda to discredit Blair and his legacy.

Of course Tony Blair made mistakes during his ten years in office. Few politicians do not screw up from time to time. But he also achieved much during his term as Prime Minister. Not least among those achievements was his part in ending the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. Notwithstanding the damage caused to Iraq and its people by the 2003 war, many people in other countries are here today because of his actions who might otherwise have lost their lives.

For that and for his other achievements as Prime Minister, he deserves credit. And he does not deserve to be damned by his association with the former Libyan regime unless and until conclusive evidence of impropriety emerges.

A responsible press does not feign amnesia to support campaigns against politicians that it does not favour. It should consider the circumstances at the time when actions were taken before condemning them  in the light of subsequent events.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK

One Comment
  1. An excellent post. The British media – by and large, there are some exceptions – is an utter disgrace. Especially so when it comes to throwing Tony Blair on any fire raging.

    They have agendas, varied yet with the same hoped-for conclusion: to prove that Tony Blair was not only wrong but wrongly motivated over Iraq. To throw fuel on the populist fire THEY themselves started they imply that there was a moral vacuum in Blair’s dealing with dictators.

    It’s all utter tripe yet most of the press gobble it up eagerly and regurgitate it in order to prove (back to where I started) that THEY were right, and he wrong over Iraq.

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