Yes we were friends with Gaddafi – what else could we do?

A guest post by Connor Logic

It is perhaps inevitable that interspersed with the grainy mobile phone footage of the ongoing revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, our news stations are also showing us clips of Tony Blair’s infamous handshake with Gaddafi several years ago.

You’ve got to love the old video archive. Will a politician ever make a fool of himself again and be allowed to have the incident forgotten? (The best part of the rumours that Michael Howard is being brought back into government as a justice minister – is the prospect of seeing his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman again, and again, and again.)

But is the implied criticism of Blair – and of recent British foreign policy toward Libya in general – justified? I don’t think so.

It’s true, we became friends with Libya, we traded with them, bought their oil and sold them our weapons. Some of this may be indefensible, of course. Goodness only knows how the person who sold Gaddafi the sniper rifles his mercenaries are allegedly now using to pick off civilian protesters sleeps at night. That David Cameron would lead another arms-selling mission in the region in the midst of this is crassness beyond all belief.

But the wider question – that of whether Britain should seek any form of friendly relationship with regimes such as Gaddafi’s, or indeed Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt – needs to be answered in the affirmative.

In the West we have a tendency to see the rest of the world through the prism of our role in it, as if it were sitting waiting for us to mould it, and define ourselves in the moulding. If that were ever the way things were in reality, that’s only because we forced it to be so through centuries of military and economic conquest. Today those notions have little relevance.

Even those heaping most praise on the revolutions we have seen erupting across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks are guilty of believing in our own self-importance. This week in the Guardian the indefatigable Tariq Ali wrote about how the “neocon notion that Arabs and Muslims were hostile to democracy” had been proven false. I’m sure the Libyan populace will rejoice in their impact on this narrow philosophical debate our commentators occasionally concern themselves with, as they bury their dead.

On a point of fact, of course, Ali’s statement is also plainly mistaken. Far from dismissing Muslim democracy, George W Bush’s neocons did nothing less than force democracy onto Iraq and Afghanistan, much to Ali’s distaste.

Indeed, the quagmire of Iraq is the best evidence we have of the need for friendly diplomacy with all. In this, the arguments made by the left before the invasion were correct. We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, not because Muslims can’t do democracy, but because that wasn’t the way to get them to do it.

Our only policy option vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein should have been to humour him – shake his hand, send him gifts, applaud his speeches at the United Nations. We should neither have propped him up or sought to overthrow him military. As the Egyptians, Tunisians and now the Libyans have shown, subjugated people have a way a throwing off their shackles sooner or later.

Also in the Guardian this week, Ian Birrell has written that the United Nations should now be intervening militarily in Libya to stop Gaddafi killing protesters. It’s hard not to sympathise with this view, but it just isn’t feasible. If anything, the UN’s peacekeeping remit means that its soldiers would have to stop short of removing Gaddafi, In fact they’d most likely end up allowing Gaddafi to keep hold of his stronghold in Tripoli, and prevent the protestors from eventually getting to him. Is that we want?

It’s time we learned that these revolutions aren’t about us.

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