The head of a leading British university which has taken cash from Libya yesterday admitted he was ‘embarrassed’ by his relationship with the Gaddafi regime.
(But not to worry; they are also taking money from George Soros, who of course is of Jewish origin. “We operate, I believe, a very balanced view.”)
Looks like my old school (LSE) degenerated into a rather ordinary title mill for wealthy sons of Middle Eastern despots:
The hypocrisy writ large in relations with Gaddafi owes much to our arms trade. But others profited from the diplomatic thaw by Jonathan Freedland
You’d be forgiven for being confused; the pace of change has indeed been dizzying. A matter of weeks ago our rulers could not get enough of the desert tyrants of the Middle East, selling them arms, bowing as they offered up our most hallowed institutions, covering them with moist kisses. Now all that’s changed. Now we want to take up arms against these evil dictators, David CameronÂ rushing to the Commons to rattle his “military assets” and warn of impending action.
If Muammar Gaddafi were not mad already, all this talk of no-fly zones from his erstwhile friends in London would surely drive him insane. What is he to make ofÂ such a betrayal? Can this be the same government that vowed no interest in the freedom-spreading zeal of its predecessor, that dismissed as naive the “ethical dimension” of the Robin Cook era, that swore instead to be interested only in interests, the first of these being the profits of British businesses looking for customers abroad?
One minute Britain’s attitude to Libya is all deals in the desert, lectures at the London School of Economics and bearhugs in the Bedouin tent. The next it’s scrambling the jets and readying the SAS. We’ve gone from the red carpet to carpet-bombing in the blink of an eye.
The reversal is queasier still if you recall the backstory. First, Gaddafi was a hate figure, benefactor of the IRA, murderer of Yvonne Fletcher andÂ patronÂ of the Lockerbie bombing. Then Tony Blair made his rapprochement and the colonel became our new best friend. According to theÂ Campaign Against Arms Trade, or CAAT, Libya was until days ago classed as a “priority market country” by the UK Trade & Investment Defence and Security Organisation, the crack squad of taxpayer-funded arms salesmen. That meant we invited Gaddafi’s lieutenants to our arms fairs and we laid on a big show, in fact the biggest, at theirs.
In case anyone tries to reassure you that the UK is always terribly careful to ensure nothing it sells can ever be used for anything so nasty as internal repression, take a look at Gaddafi’s shopping list. It included “wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition and sniper rifles”. That’s not exactly camping equipment. Yet it was all swiftly approved by Her Majesty’s Government for export.
Still, we shouldn’t just blame the politicians and arms dealers. There were others eager to grovel at Gaddafi’s feet. The deans of the LSE were ready to tarnish that institution’s name by accepting a Â£1.5m donation from Gaddafi’s son Saif. The LSE’s former directorÂ Anthony Giddens obligingly cast Libya as the future “Norway of north Africa,” writing in the Guardian, “Will real progress be possible only when Gaddafi leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite.”
Now they are furiously changing tack, as fast as salesman Cameron is trading in his mercantilist foreign policy for something altogether more macho. The LSE is investigating Gaddafi Jr’s doctoral thesis for plagiarism while professing “embarrassment” over its eagerness to take the Butcher of Tripoli’s cash â€“ as if this centre of scholarly excellence is shocked to discover that Gaddafi is not a Scandinavian social democrat after all.
In a brilliantly self-defeating defence, the LSE’s director, Sir Howard Davies, told the Times on Monday: “The biggest donor to the School in the past year is George Soros, who of course is of Jewish origin. We operate, I believe, a very balanced view.” As if there is moral equivalence between a (false) philanthropist who funds free speech the world over and a homicidal despot, just because one is a Jew and the other an Arab.
Davies’s muddle shows how confused even the smartest people become when they get tangled up with tyrants. So there is no need, for instance, to denounce the entire British-American entente with Gaddafi: persuading Libya to abandon its WMD programme in 2004 represented a solid achievement. It is right to note how much more of a lethal threat the dictator would pose to his own people if he were armed with nuclear or chemical weapons.
But did we have to turn a useful diplomatic thaw into a wholesale love-in? To translate geopolitics into body language, could Blair not simply have shaken the colonel’s hand; why did he have to kiss and hug him, too?
The same goes across the region. We can have official relations with Bahrain, but that does not make it compulsory for Sandhurst to be the training ground for that fiefdom’s rulersÂ along with the rest of the Gulf autocracy, a relationship so close that the immovable king of Bahrain is the patron of Sandhurst Foundation. We can keep our phonelines open to Saudi Arabia without constructing a web of ties so close and entangled that a former UK ambassador to Riyadh, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who played a key role in pressing the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into BAE Systems over a Saudi arms deal,resurfaces just four months after he left the diplomatic corps as a director of … BAE.
Put simply, there’s no need for Cameron’s manic mood swing from red carpet to carpet bomb: there is plenty of space between coddling dictators and waging war on them, space Britain has signally failed to occupy.
For one thing there is what Prof Giddens might call a “third way” between selling aircraft to a regime and shooting them down. We could start by surrendering our role as weapons supplier of choice to the dictators’ club. People always rubbish such talk as naive idealism, pointing out the tens of thousands of jobs allegedly dependent on the arms trade. But CAAT’s figures suggest just 0.2% of British workers are employed producing arms for export. If we have a strong weapons industry it’s partly because we subsidise it so heavily â€“Â to the tune of Â£500m each year. In the words of theÂ Financial Times’s Alan Beattie â€“ no naif â€“ “You can have as many arms export jobs as you are prepared to waste public money subsidising.”
Of course easing up on the weapons selling won’t be enough. But Cameron’s talk of military action amounts to little more than posturing â€“ doubtless designed to distract attention from the rescue flights fiasco â€“ given that the US is at best lukewarm towards the idea, while France and Russia remain sceptical or hostile. In a post-Iraq world, the appetite for another “coalition of the willing” operating outside a UN mandate is thin.
The truth that Cameron won’t face is that Britain can’t act alone â€“ and certainly not in the age of aircraft carriers without aircraft andÂ 11,000 redundancies in the armed forces. As Labour’s Douglas Alexander puts it: “These networked revolutions in the Middle East demand a networked response.” That means multilateral co-operation, whether to achieve tough UN sanctions against Gaddafi, bring humanitarian help to the Libyan people, rewrite the EU rules on arms sales, or to broker a UN international arms trade treaty. Yet this is ground on which the Europe-wary, bilateralist Cameron fears to tread.
The result is that today he shakes his fist at dictators while yesterday he sought to kiss their hand. It’s a damning choice â€“ and a false one.
Sons of Gaddafi: underneath the thin veneer of civility and Western education is a vicious and vindictive character, every bit as nasty as daddy’s.
AÂ few days ago, the above video surfaced on YouTube ofÂ Seif al-Islam Al-Gaddafi atop an armoured vehicle in what appears to be a morale-boosting visit to the front line.
What is interesting is that Seif is carrying a German-made H&K G36 assault rifle, not the standard issue AK-47 used by the ordinary troops. His jacket is most probably designer and so too are his glasses. This is the story of the LSE graduate, who counted Peter Mandelson as one of his close friends, now finding himself having to crush a popular uprising on behalf of dictator dad.