Back to website,,482-996916,00.html

Phew. Cynicism is back in diplomatic fashion

Your starter for ten. What is the difference between a sadistic oil-rich Arab dictator who must be backed and fêted by the West and a sadistic oil-rich Arab dictator who must be bombed and sanctioned into submission? Answer: none.

The lucky dictator in the 1980s was Saddam Hussein and today it is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The unlucky dictator in the 1980s was Gaddafi and the unlucky one today is Saddam. In the 1980s the Americans and British were selling Saddam materials for his weapons systems. We knew he was massacring civilians with them. During that time American planes took off from British bases to assassinate Gaddafi in his Tripoli palace. The planes were no more accurate than a similar mission to kill Saddam last year. Dozens of civilians died, including one of Gaddafi’s children, but not the target.

Had Gaddafi died in 1986, his death would have been hailed as a triumph against terrorism. Had Saddam been killed then, it would have been seen as a blow to stability and anti-fundamentalism in the Gulf region. Twenty years later neither Saddam nor Gaddafi had changed in their essentials. Both tyrants had aged and become less of a menace to the world. Gaddafi had stopped sponsoring terrorists. Saddam had let the UN destroy his weapons stockpiles. Both still killed their enemies, suppressed opposition and impoverished their peoples.

Yet now it is Saddam whose death is sought by the West and Gaddafi who is hailed by Tony Blair as “courageous and statesmanlike”. Yesterday Mr Blair welcomed the Libyan Foreign Minister to London to ask when he might pay court to the great man in his desert tent. This may be stomach-turning to those who remember the Abu Nidal slayings, the Lockerbie bomb and Gaddafi’s arming of the IRA. But, hey guys, this is politics 2004-style.

Gaddafi heads a regime no less monstrous than Saddam’s and his past support for global terror outstrips anything laid at Saddam’s door. Gaddafi’s megalomania, including Aids tests for female interviewers, parodies all that Westerners find most offensive in Arab leaders. He may have handed over two aged terrorists to the Dutch and dug up some old mustard gas and infrastructure for a nuclear “programme” for the UN to “decommission”, in the hope of getting more for his oil. He is treated in return, as was Saddam in the 1980s, with drooling flattery. Gaddafi realises not that Washington is strong but that it and London are suddenly weak. They are desperate to find “world-threatening” weapons anywhere on Earth that they could claim to have disarmed.

The past month has been astonishing. Another dictator, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, has admitted that his nuclear weapons team have been supplying material to every rogue state in the world, including Iran and North Korea. This has been in defiance of supposedly fierce controls on nuclear dissemination and under the nose of Western intelligence so obsessed with finding non-existent Iraqi bombs that it neglected real Pakistani ones.

Musharraf runs a repressive regime that harbours the Taleban forces out to topple the Kabul regime of Hamid Karzai. The historian of the Taleban, Ahmed Rashid, reports in this month’s New York Review of Books that conditions in southern Afghanistan remind him of ten years ago. He is now seeing “history repeat itself, in some respects worse than before”. The Taleban is fuelled by unprecedented opium money, released by the US-backed warlords. And what does Musharraf do? He leaves the Taleban in peace and grants a state pardon to his nuclear salesmen, knowing that the West dares not abandon him.

Saddam was a brute and a villain. But there is no evidence that he made any seriously threatening strategic weapons in the past decade. Nor is there evidence, despite President Bush’s claim at the weekend, that he would have “let them fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network”. That accusation should be levelled instead at Bush’s “good friend”, Musharraf.

Saddam did not sponsor Abu Nidal or al-Qaeda or any other terror network. Yet Gaddafi did. He may have stopped now, but then Saddam had stopped making his weapons. And what of the terrorists believed to be run from Syria and Iran, the latter sanctified by a visit from the Prince of Wales? As for inside Iraq, the Americans this week admitted that Pentagon rule has made Baghdad a haven for every terrorist on Earth, including al-Qaeda.

How should we react to a Western foreign policy that is so promiscuously cynical? The answer might be with a weary sigh: it was ever thus. Young diplomats are told that foreign policy is about interests, never morality. I see the recent turn of events as more optimistic. Mr Blair’s crusade to save the world has strutted its bloodthirsty hour upon the stage. Its downfall was in being joined to America’s search for punitive revenge after 9/11. Both crusade and revenge are now stumbling to a finish in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the shanty towns of Iraq. We shall not see them again for a generation.

Dead too is the visionary policy adumbrated by Bush in his National Endowment speech last November. Then he proclaimed that “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe”. In future, he said, policy would be guided by “a forward strategy” requiring democracy and freedom in return for American friendship.

That policy lasted barely three months. America is desperate to get out of Iraq, on any terms which the once hated United Nations can negotiate with the Shia mullahs. Britain will get out too. Likewise in Afghanistan the resurgence of the Taleban in the south and of warlordism in the north renders “democracy” meaningless. Kabul may remain as an American-backed sanctuary. Stable and democratic it will not be.

Suddenly the drums are beating to the old rhythms. We must cut a deal with North Korea. We must forgive Pakistan its sins. We must resume relations with the ayatollahs in Tehran. We must welcome “signs of change” in Libya, Syria, Morocco, Tajikistan, even if there are none. Just as “cognitive dissonance” was forced to justify war two years ago, now it must justify being nice to dictators. Jack Straw must put his hand into the battered dovecot and bring out a half-starved bird of peace. Mr Blair kowtows to the odious Gaddafi. Wonders never cease.

In a new book (The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first century) the diplomatist, Robert Cooper, seeks to analyse this confusion. He sees an America freed from the constraints of the Cold War and hurling itself round the globe. Militarily aggressive, it finds new foes in terrorism and “failed states”. Then, politically defensive, it dashes home and minds its hearth.

Europe meanwhile grows soft, preferring “to live in a world of law rather than one of power”. It views America’s readiness to take on the ills of the world sometimes with reassurance, sometimes with horror. Failed states, says Cooper, guard their identity more than their real self-interest. They thrill to have found ways of getting under America’s skin. The Pentagon’s coercion through “shock and awe” may be macho but it cannot deliver. Cooper holds that the increasingly pacifist states of Europe must learn to rearm themselves. America’s umbrella will not last.

This is too gloomy for me. I think the Americans will be “beaten” in both Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving chaos worse confounded than before. This was not inevitable. In occupying Japan after 1945, America took advice from anthropologists and historians. In Iraq it rejected all such advice and relied on blundering, heavy-handed security. It is proving an awful mistake. But at least Washington can see disaster coming. It is already beating the retreat.

Into the resulting vacuum we welcome our old friend, “constructive engagement”, never to be called appeasement. Engaging with foreign states, even hostile ones, has usually made more sense than ostracising, impoverishing and bombing them. The Prince’s visit to Tehran thus makes sense. Mr Blair’s sickening handshake with Libya makes sense. We must not invade North Korea or Syria. It would be stupid to punish Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for 9/11, as it was stupid to punish Afghanistan and Iraq for the same offence.

This is not a matter of morality or avoiding innocent deaths. It is a matter of self-interest and common sense. Foreign policy is opportunism for slow learners.