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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Expelling Libyan Diplomats Is A Gamble By William Hague
London has in effect de-recognised the Gaddafi regime. But if things don't go to plan it will leave Hague badly exposed
By Simon Tisdall
William Hague is escorted by security personnel during a visit to Benghazi in June. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS
William Hague's announcement today that Britain is expelling the remaining eight Libyan diplomats accredited to London represents a further intensification of the military, economic and diplomatic pressure on the beleaguered regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
The foreign secretary's decision is a significant boost for the rebels' Benghazi-based national transitional council, which is viewed by Britain, as of today, as the "sole governmental authority" in Libya. By taking this action, Britain has come into line with the US, France, Italy and other Nato allies, which had already declared the NTC to be the de facto government of Libya.
As a matter of longstanding policy, Britain recognises states, not governments. But in effect London has now "de-recognised" the Gaddafi regime and its representatives in the UK. In doing so, it has further delegitimised the remaining authority of Gaddafi and those around him and has invited the NTC to send a representative – in essence an ambassador – to London.
Speaking at the Foreign Office, Hague did not give a specific reason for taking this action at this time, but set it in the context of the decision of the recent Libya contact group meeting in Istanbul to maximise pressure on the Gaddafi regime. He claimed the move had support from Arab League and African Union countries – many of which, however, continue to deal with Gaddafi's government.
Nor did he shed any light on how he believed the decision may affect the desultory negotiating process with Tripoli that the UN and the Russians are trying, so far without much success, to advance. Hague changed his position on Gaddafi's future earlier this week, saying he could in theory remain in the country (and not go into exile) as long as he surrendered power. That was seen in some quarters as a softening of Britain's position.
Now Hague has gone back on the offensive, stripping Gaddafi of international legitimacy and making clear that any peace settlement in Libya must be struck, first and foremost, under the auspices and with the full agreement of the NTC, as the only credible representative of the Libyan people. Hague was saying to the military and political figures around Gaddafi: the game is up, you have no future. It's time to accept that, cut your losses, and make a deal.
The foreign secretary underscored that message by repeating that the military campaign would go on "as long as it takes", and by drawing attention to Britain's recent decision to deploy an additional four Tornado fighter-bombers. He said Britain would work to unfreeze regime assets, including £91m in oil company assets, and make them available to the NTC.
Evidently with an eye on relations with an oil-rich post-Gaddafi Libya, Hague emphasised that Britain was a "true friend" of the Libyan people and listed all it was doing to help: humanitarian assistance, military and diplomatic advice and material support, and help with policing and security. The British mission in Benghazi was now its biggest in north Africa after Cairo, he said.
Hague's bullishness extended to sharp criticism of the Scottish government's "mistaken" decision two years ago to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Megrahi was recently seen on Libyan state television in what was interpreted as a deliberate act of defiance by Gaddafi, aimed at London. Hague described the Scottish doctors' opinion that Megrahi was close to death from prostate cancer as "worthless".
Hague's performance today appeared designed to dispel doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of the government's strategy and convince his listeners that success was only a matter of time. He emphasised that he had the full support of the prime minister, David Cameron, in ordering the expulsions and pursuing the campaign. He also stressed Britain's leading role in organising the international response to the uprising that began in March.
All this leaves him very exposed if things don't go according to plan, or drag on indefinitely at ever greater cost. Hague admitted indirectly that Britain and its allies have no actual control over what happens next in Libya. That is ultimately up to the Libyan people, and their collective wishes are difficult to gauge.
It may be true that they yearn impatiently for Westminster-style democracy and the warm, unselfish embrace of the west. Or it may be that a compromise internal political settlement that is altogether less clear-cut, and less wholly favourable to western interests, will emerge despite all Britain's not so subtle cajoling.
There is another basic policy problem. Hague cannot escape the ongoing consequences of the personalisation of the Libyan campaign around the unlovely figure of Gaddafi. Early on it became clear that Gaddafi was the primary target and democratisation a secondary aim. The uprising gave Britain, the US and their partners a chance to get even with this much reviled bogeyman after many years of humiliation and repeated outrages. The success of the Libyan policy will consequently be measured, primarily, by what happens to Gaddafi. If he survives, crowing, to fight another day, Hague and others may not.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 27/07/2011
- Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist. He was previously a foreign leader writer for the paper and has also served as its foreign editor and its US editor, based in Washington DC. He was the Observer's foreign editor from 1996-98