Diplomats, a British ambassador said a few centuries ago, are gentlemen sent abroad to lie for their country. I’d add that the problem is when they start to lie for other countries, while the disaster is when they start to lie for enemies of their country.
Stefan Zweig, in a 1930 book, spoke of “diplomatists, who form a little understood but extremely dangerous variety of our human kind.”
But diplomats and political leaders also have real dilemmas, in some ways unresolvable ones. Here’s an example of how the problem works and bedevils Middle East policy and foreign policy generally.
A year ago, Britain released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from prison and returned him to Libya. This was done nominally because a doctor said — the British government had to shop around until it found the right doctor — that he was dying. The real reason, apparently, was that this move helped British Petroleum get a big contract with Libya.
Today, though, Megrahi is doing well. He isn’t dying at all. In fact, Libya celebrated the anniversary of his release and he was visited by son-of-dictator (and apparent successor) Saif Qadhafi.
The British government warned Libya that any such celebration would be “tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive” and would make it really, really angry. Libya didn’t care, ignored the threat, and Britain did nothing.
In short, a Western country looks weak, scared, and corrupt; and a repressive, hate-filled, terrorist-supporting dictatorship looks powerful and in control of the world. The signal thus sent leads to a world where democrats tremble and dictators romp.
Let’s take a step back and consider this as a case study. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was given a 27-year prison sentence in 2001 for involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, mostly U.S. citizens.
But of course Megrahi was just a scapegoat. He was acting in his capacity as a Libyan government official and in the end he took the rap like a loyal Mafia soldier. No doubt his family has been well provided for.
Still, the conclusion is obvious: The Libyan government ordered the bombing. Muammar Qadhafi and his regime are responsible for this terrorist act, just as the Iranian and Syrian governments are responsible for directly ordering numerous terrorist attacks.
So what’s a victim country to do? The traditional response to such behavior is a military attack, perhaps the seizure of part of the aggressive company or even the occupation of its capital and the overthrow of the regime. The idea is that the threat is thus removed, the malefactors punished, and an example is given to deter future imitators.
One could say that this is what the United States did in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, with the former a response to the attack on the World Trade Center and the latter to Saddam Hussein’s frequent flouting of his previous agreements and reported pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Does this mean that the proper response to the Lockerbie attack should have been a coalition attack on Libya and the overthrow of the Qadhafi regime? And what about the Western attitude toward the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip? Can a country act unilaterally to defend itself or must it await a UN resolution, without which nothing can be done at all?
These are difficult questions. William Gladstone, the nineteenth-century British prime minister who had to face such problems, remarked: “Interference in foreign countries, according to my mind, should be rare, deliberate, decisive in character, and effectual for its end.” When Sudanese Islamist forces were closing in on Khartoum, set to massacre not only the British force sent to protect the population there but also thousands of Sudanese Muslim civilians, he didn’t want to act.