Let's face it: Moammar Gadhafi has outsmarted the Western powers, and he has been outsmarting them for exactly forty years. Not outsmarting them, by the way, in behalf of an ideology either collectivist or Islamist—although it aspires to leadership in both orbits. Libya's rise this coming year to the presidency of the United Nations General Assembly is a symbolic victory for the mangy man and his very wealthy country with deprived people.
This is a case of kingship with populist and Arabist rhetoric. But what it really is is gangster politics with ideological pretenses that justify keeping independent spirits in prison.
In 2004, while Iraq was both exploding and imploding, George Bush, desperate to show that he had won some Arabs over to "our side," made a deal with Gadhafi: Tripoli would give up its quest for atomic weapons, a quest that its science (unlike Iran's) could not support, and the U.S. and other Western powers would welcome the madman back into civilized society. It worked, more or less, for Gadhafi. It did not work for us.
In any case, Gadhafi had one more grievance against the West, especially Great Britain and the U.S. See my narrative about this. He had, after years of palaver, released under an agreement with London and Washington (plus Edinburgh) two Libyan intelligence operatives for trial at The Hague with a Scottish tribunal who were charged with blowing up Pan Am 103. In which there were 270 dead, 189 of them Americans. One of the accused was acquitted. The other, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was sentenced to life in prison.
As soon as the verdict was rendered, Gadhafi began to agitate for the prisoner's freedom. It took only a few years for London to begin the haggle process. This is a process in which Brits are deficient. I'll leave the other part of this thought to the reader.
In any case, you know the rest of the al-Megrahi narrative.
But Christopher Caldwell, one of the great newspaper columnists in the English language, has just published in Saturday's FT a precis of this tale, drawing out the most meaningful correlations that have to do with the future of the West and western power.
Caldwell observes that "it consoles us to focus on what is most clownish about Col. Gaddafi. At an African Union summit in February, he praised Somali piracy as a development model." The fact is that Western and especially British "politicians and businessmen are not being outsmarted by him. They are caving in to him."
So what about the Americans and particularly the Obama administration?
While the U.S. public is indeed furious over the release of Mr. Megrahi, the Obama administration's criticisms are probably pro forma. From his apologetic speech in Cairo to the Ramadan dinner he held at the White House last week, Mr. Obama has placed good-faith gestures at the heart of his Middle Eastern policy. It is almost as if he believes that the West's tensions with the Muslim world involve an accounting of manners. We have run up a big deficit of slights, which must be paid down with courtesies. Letting Mr. Megrahi go is consistent with that.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, did feel that she needed to say something about Megrahi. How could she not? But here's what she said: The U.S. was "offended by the reception accorded to Mr. Megrahi in Libya upon his return from the UK." Oh, so so diplomatic. To the government of Mr. Brown and to the Libyan tyrant himself. Is there no decent sentiment for the surviving families and friends of the victims of the Libyan atrocity?
There will be many books and articles written Pan Am 103 and this disgusting denouement of the freeing of Megrahi on medical grounds. So that he might die in his bed, so to speak. Well, there are millions of people who would like to die in their own beds but are denied that grace by the likes of Megrahi and Gadhafi. Let me leave this list here.
But as a postscript, I want to mention an article in the (London) Sunday Telegraph revealing that the medical report used by the Scottish and British authorities to rationalize Megrahi's release—that otherwise he would die in prison—was paid for by the Libyan government. And how many sick people who have committed far lesser transgressions against a just order of the universe spend their last days in jail. How many people in Scotland and in England and in the United States?