Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary in 1997 amid much fanfare about an ethical foreign policy. That lasted a matter of weeks before arms sales to Indonesia intervened and a muting of the sound was required.
To be fair, Cook was a good man who tried to do the right thing and showed his mettle and his principles by resigning from office over the Iraq War. However, it also showed how difficult it can be to abide by ethical values when the needs of a state intrude.
Interventions in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan were perhaps justifiable or misguided. But even if the latter became a proven folly, at least there were good intentions and attempts to abide by them. However, New Labour gave up any pretence of an ethical foreign policy after Tony Blair rode shotgun for George W Bush on the invasion of Iraq. It was without any ethical basis and predicated on a lie. Having supped with the devil, Blair seemed to lose any moral scruples on foreign policy, as shown by the shameless behaviour over Libya.
When news of a UK and Libya ‘Prisoner Transfer Agreement’ first broke, Jack Straw sallied north to appease the new SNP administration’s concerns about its effect on Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The UK Justice Secretary seemingly genuinely willing to remove Scotland’s only Libyan prisoner from the document until overruled by the Treasury and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which made clear the demands of Libya and the needs of the British state.
Straw was no innocent on Libyan affairs as shown by the parliamentary apology tendered last week over the case of Abdel Belhaj, a Libyan dissident rendered into the Gadhafi regime’s hands by the US with the complicity of the UK. That not quite unprecedented but still highly unusual action was needed by a Tory Minister to dig a former Labour Foreign Secretary and Director of MI6 out of a huge hole they’d dug for the country by their appalling actions. Had an apology not been made then further litigation would have been embarrassing and costly to not just the reputations of major governmental institutions but potentially the liberty of former senior figures.
Belhaj and his pregnant wife weren’t the only prisoners rendered to Gadhafi’s Libya by the CIA and UK’s security services. There were others and they were returned to a despot that the UK was imposing international sanctions on and rightly condemned. To be fair to Cook, his initial involvement with Libya was simply to seek the release of the Lockerbie suspects for the trial that took place at Camp Zeist. His successors though discarded all pretence at justice and policy was dictated by the shameless pursuit of UK economic interests, irrespective of the welfare of innocents.
When Blair made his deal in the desert and embraced Gadhafi, other connected events quickly followed. First was the signing of a huge oil deal and second the commencement of the prisoner renditions. For the deal was a two-way street with benefits for the Libyan regime as much as the UK. It wasn’t just a lessening of sanctions but also involved the supply of arms and even the training of Gadhafi’s elite troops by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
That was exposed in an Amnesty International report shortly after I made the decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds – and not because of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement. Individuals are entitled to their view on that, but the criticism of it by Labour was brazen given the actions they were involved in. America was equally Brazen with Clinton and Obama pursuing commercial deals with Libya, as well as courting him as an ally against Islamism. They embraced the Gadhafi family before Megrahi was even released but were equally craven in their denunciations.
The great irony is that when the West realised that Gadhafi was neither going to change nor be reliable they turned on him once more. Many rendered by the CIA and tortured by the regime were then supported, yet faced a military trained and supplied by the West. In a further twist, some of them have since been bombed in turn as the post-Gadhafi Libya disintegrated and warlordism surfaced.
Whilst the UK and USA were in the lead, other nations were complicit with Berlusconi’s Italy and Sarkozy’s France having close links with a Libyan regime which was supposedly a world pariah, as did other European countries including Germany – which only shows how prevalent it is that the needs of the state trump ethical values.
Now of course New Labour’s fanfare of an ethical foreign policy has been replaced by the delusions of the Brexiters and whilst Cook was a decent man that cannot be said about the current incumbent. Boris Johnson is as shameless and unprincipled an individual as the UK policy position taken under his command. There’s little pretence of having any moral basis, just a desire for Britannia to rule the waves once more and the desperation for post-EU trade deals with anyone irrespective of their actions. Hence why the Saudis are courted despite the horror they’re perpetrating in the Yemen, Turkey’s Erdogan is feted despite his crackdown in his own country and Israel’s atrocities in Gaza are only half-heartedly criticised.
It’s not easy to have an ethical foreign policy – as Cook discovered – but efforts can be made even if from time to time real-politik enters into it, and that applies to countries large and small. Ireland was neutral but during the Iraq War but it was hard to know that given the American military use of Shannon Airport. Needs must for the Irish economy as otherwise action would have been taken by the USA. Likewise, Scottish Governments of all political hues since devolution have sought to abide by a certain moral code even if the requirements of some business deals and the training of some unpleasant associates has taken place. After all, even Scandinavian countries held up as models of probity have economic necessities as arms sales show.
Jobs and trade matter, and ethics have limits, but shamefully this Tory Government seems entirely devoid of any values and decency in foreign affairs.