Sunday, September 6, 2009

How Not to Moderate Radicals: The UK, Libya, Prisoner Releases, and Oil Deals

By Barry Rubin

The scandal of Britain releasing a Libyan terrorist who helped kill 270 people in the Lockerbie bombing in exchange for an oil deal continues to build. But I want to focus on some details of the issue that shed light on…well, just about everything concerning Western relations with the Middle East.

First, in a damaging interview, UK Justice Minister Jack Straw admitted that the oil deal was “a very big part” of the prisoner deal. This in itself is shocking. Straw is known for being too free with his mouth and this time opened it large enough for his foot to enter firmly therein.

The interesting part is how Straw justifies such behavior:

“I’m unapologetic about that... Libya was a rogue state. “We wanted to bring it back into the fold. And yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP [British Petroleum] deal.”

Of course, we know that what goes on with trade—and this applies to Syria, Iran, and other “rogue” states is not to make moderation but to make money. But here are the other problems.

First, Libya, of course, is still an extremist state. . So the “moderation” through concession policy has failed repeatedly.

Only in the last week dictator Muammar Qadhafi blamed Israel for all the woes of the Africa continent and threatened Switzerland because it dare send police when his visiting son beat up two servants.

Second, regarding Switzerland, that country backed down on the incident in the face of Libyan demands. Surrender and concession is also a big part of the “moderation” strategy. But in the context of Middle Eastern social psychology and political culture, such behavior only emboldens the radicals, which is also what’s happening. And this leads naturally to the next point.

Third, whatever you think of the Iraq war remember that Libya’s temporary “moderation”—in the form of giving up its nuclear weapons program—came out of pure fear. The United States had just invaded Iraq in 2003 and Qadhafi worried, wrongly of course, that he would be next. Power matters and the use of leverage is a major tool in international affairs.

It is generally better to make threats rather than to have to implement them. Yet failing to use power well, emboldening adversaries, and setting off crises is often what leads to war. The steady weakening of the sanctions against Iraq was a major cause of the U.S. decision to invade.

Another example was the mistaken U.S. neutrality in the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990, which Baghdad perceived as giving it a green light to attack and annex its neighbor. That the Obama administration has just repeated this error in the current Iraq-Syria crisis only underlines the sad failure to learn that lesson.

Finally, and most intriguingly, is the ease of fooling—and thus making fools—of the West. Significant here is  the op-ed piece by a high Libyan official in a major U.S. newspaper, denying that he had received a hero’s welcome (the same treatment as a hero that Lebanese and Syrian leaders gave recently to another terrorist who murdered civilians in cold blood).

Incidentally, how many media outlets pointed out the fact that the released prisoner was merely an intelligence officer who took his orders from Qadhafi himself? When a high-ranking intelligence officer is convicted of terrorism, it means that state-sponsored terrorism is going on. Qadhafi has the blood of those 270 Lockerbie victims on his hands.

You can see that’s a lie in the photos but by publishing a factually false op-ed piece—well what do you expect when dealing with repressive, terrorist-sponsoring dictatorships?—the newspaper misinformed its readers.

Over and over again we see these four basic features of contemporary life being illustrated. Why isn’t the lesson learned and implemented by the leaders of democratic states?

One reason: oil deals and maintaining peace and quiet are more important to some of them than are the lives of their citizens.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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