Notes From the Margins…


  • September 07, 2011
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In public British governments often argue that Britain’s foreign policy is dictated by  moral and ethical considerations.  Privately, British officials operate according to very different concept of  statecraft and the national interest in which morality is generally placed on hold.   Occasionally  it is possible to glimpse this discrepancy.   Consider the following document that has recently come to light about the relationship between Britain and the Gaddafi regime before the recent ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya:


The secret letter


The ‘cargo’ refers to a suspect handed over to Moussa Kousa for torture.  Until his defection earlier this year Moussa Kousa was the head of Libyan intelligence – a position that earned him the label the ‘fingernail-puller-in-chief’ in Libya.   ‘Mark’ is Sir Mark Allen, former head of counterterrorism at M16, who in 2004 went on to work as a £200,000 per year advisor for BP.  A clubby public school Arabist straight from the the Kim Philby senior/TE Lawrence template, Allen went on to  help broker a £15 billion drilling contract with the Libyan regime in 2007.

One of those rendered under his watch was  Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former member of the al-Qaeda linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who was captured by the CIA in Thailand in 2004 and flown to Libya with the assistance of M16.   Now a leading military commander in the rebel Tripoli Military Council, this former ‘Islamist’ is demanding an apology from the CIA and the British government for the tortures he received during his four-year imprisonment.

All this was known and approved by the Labour government, even though it denied that such things were taking place at the time.

In addition to relying on the expertise of Gaddafi’s security forces during the ‘war on terror’,  Blair and Brown had other priorities in Libya.  One might think Blair was just being friendly and statesmanlike in the recently published letters wishing “Dear Mu’ammar” a cheerful “Eid Mubarak” and “recalling how our compassionate God has mercy on mankind”.   Unusually, our erudite prime minister took time out from his busy schedule to write to Gaddafi’s son, who he fawningly addressed as “Engineer Saif”,  on 5 March 2007 to comment on his plagiarised Phd LSE thesis.

Why Saif felt the need for Blair’s comments is not clear.   After all Sir Mark Allen already sat on an LSE advisory board, where Saif was studying (sort of), and the ex-spook also worked for the Monitor Group, a consultancy firm which helped carry out some of the research for his doctorate.   Perhaps Gaddafi’s son was aware of Blair’s expertise in  plagiarising other people’s Phds in order to promote an illegal war, in which case it was logical that one fraud would consult another.

In any case Blair’s response was uplifting and statesmanlike, with its catchy global politician references to Bono, the Pope, climate change  and the Make Poverty History campaign, laced with New Labour drivel about   ‘ the power of greater collaboration between government, civil society and business.’

The motives behind Blair’s (ghostwritten?) foray into academia aren’t difficult to fathom. Less than two months later he attended a meeting with Gaddafi Snr. that secured an eye-watering £350 million deal for British arms companies.   According to the Times

Senior officials with two companies which accompanied Blair on his “deal in the desert”, left with large hardware orders under the defence accord between the two countries.  MBDA, in which British Aerospace (BAe) has a 38% stake, left with a £147m contract for anti-tank missiles and a £112m related communication system contract. General Dynamics UK (GDUK) was given a deal worth £85m to supply the Libyan army with radios which could be extended to other elements of its armed forces. “

A good day batting for Britain then, or corporate Britain at least.   And Blair’s successor had the same conception of the national interest.  Another letter, from Gordon Brown to Gaddafi, dated 25 July 2007, contains the following paragraph:

I am grateful for Libya’s cooperation in the field of counter terrorism, and for Libya’s support for our attempts to deport terrorist suspects….I also look forward to further cooperation in the defence field, based on our recent Defence Accord, and to working to ensure the conditions are right for British businesses to increase their investment in Libya, for Libya to invest productively in the City of London, and for the companies of both countries to strengthen their commercial links.

The ‘Defence Accord’ not only brought a lot of military hardware flowing to Libya – much of which has been put to good use ever since the protests began in Benghazi.   It also provided SAS training to the Khamis Brigade, the same unit which has been accused of carrying out some of the worst atrocities against civilians during the Libyan war.

In an article in the Daily Mail on New Labour’s relationship with Gaddafi, the historian  Michael Burleigh calls on David Cameron to order an inquiry ‘  into this episode of moral squalor, while ensuring that nothing like it occurs in our relations with the new Libya or any foreign power   ever again.’  But the point about this ‘moral squalor’ is that it is not just an ‘episode’ – it is a natural consequence of the way that  states – including democratic states – pursue their interests.

Britain is no exception.  Torture,  arms sales to dictators, oil, phony Phds – its all part of the game old chap.    And before you conclude that the Libyan ‘intervention’ represents some kind of Damascene conversion to a new moral foreign policy on the part of the Coalition government,  last week’s Telegraph has a piece on ‘Libya: the minister, the Tory donor and a contract to supply oil.’ According to the Telegraph: “An oil firm whose chief executive has bankrolled the Conservatives won valuable rights to trade with Libyan rebels during the conflict, following secret talks involving the British Government.”

The Telegraph goes on to report that

The deal with Vitol was said to have been masterminded by Alan Duncan, the former oil trader turned junior minister, who has close business links to the oil firm and was previously a director of one of its subsidiaries.  Mr Duncan”s private office received funding from the head of Vitol before the general election. Ian Taylor, the company’s chief executive and a friend of Mr Duncan, has given more than £200,000 to the Conservatives.  Vitol is thought to be the only oil firm to have traded with the rebels during the Libyan conflict.

Plus ca change then.   And to anyone out there who thinks that any of this has anything to do with morality I can only say, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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