Tony Blair defends his 'special relationship' with Libya's Gaddafi

Tony Blair defends his 'special relationship' with Libya's Gaddafi
Blog: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave evidence to politicians on Friday, where he defended his relationship with the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
3 min read
11 Dec, 2015
Blair led Western efforts to bring Libyan leader Gaddafi 'out of the cold' [Getty]
It was only a fleeting friendship with the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but it appears to be one that has come back to haunt former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Dogged by the consequences of his invasion of Iraq in 2003, Blair's televised appearance in front of the UK foreign affairs committee on Friday was another opportunity for the former PM to contribute to the myths around his legacy.

Truth will out

The West's rapprochement in 2004 with the dangerous, chemically armed and unpredictable Libyan regime was supposed to be one of Blair's small foreign policy victories in the Middle East and North Africa.

His "deal in the desert" brought Gaddafi in from the cold, ended his chemical weapons programme, stopped his support for terrorist groups, and turned the "mad dog of the Middle East" into a reliable and "moderate" leader.

But it was short-lived, and seven years later thousands of Libyans took the streets to protest against Gaddafi's rule, triggering unrest that still continues today.

The mask slipped, and the Libyan dictator ordered his army and allied mercenaries to fire into the crowds, leading to armed revolt.

During Blair's grilling with MPs, Blair insisted that he knew all along that the Libyan leader would eventually be overthrown.

However, Gaddafi's fall was probably one of the most surprising events of the Arab Spring for analysts.

Blair insisted that Gaddafi's rule was "unsustainable" and was aware of the huge opposition the regime faced, which was buried away under heavy foundations of organised pageantry, propaganda, and brutal suppression.

What MPs wanted to know, is that if Gaddafi was so brutal and widely opposed, why did Blair allegedly try to warn him and harry him safely out of the country when protests and armed revolts began in 2011?

"I was not trying to save Gaddafi," Blair erupted during the session.

The allegations that he tried to save the dictator touch a raw nerve for Blair and his legacy. 

Echoes of Iraq

British troops were committed to the Iraq invasion force due to Saddam's supposed manufacturing of chemical weapons.

When these couldn't be found, Blair justified the war - which left hundreds of thousands dead - as necessary for overthrowing a brutal dictator.

But Blair was also questioned over allowing Gaddafi to "get off the hook" for his reported links to the Lockerbie bombing and the murder of a British police officer - even after Tripoli admitted the gunman was a member of their embassy staff.

"We did not lay these issues aside. We did not hold back on Lockerbie or Yvonne Fletcher for a better relationship. Quite the opposite," said Blair.

What Blair's special relationship with Gaddafi meant was that "terrorist groups" lost one of their main sources of financial support.

With the Islamic State group now possessing a base on the Libyan coast, along with controlling much of Syria and Iraq, that truth might ring somewhat hollow.

"I think it is important that we brought them [Libya's regime] in from the cold, as it were, and important also in today's context because I think - particularly if we had still had the residue of that chemical weapons programme in Libya today, given the state of Libya today and given the presence of [IS] there - it would have constituted a real risk, even today."

What Blair does appear to have learned is the danger of regime change without a properly thought-out contingency plan and adequate security on the ground.

"The problem is once that dictatorship is removed there are forces that will come in deliberately to destabilise the country," he said.

That appears to be a lesson that Blair learned too late, just as he has finally admitted that the rise of IS was linked to his disastrous invasion of Iraq.