Gordon Brown has been almost universally condemned for his silence over the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. So it is left to me to speak up for the prime minister’s right to remain silent in the heat of battle.
Whatever Gordon Brown said or did about Libya he would have faced criticism. He was in a no-win situation. Moreover, his critics missed this point: it is a noble art – responsibility even – of a leader not to reveal all that she or he knows or thinks when under pressure.
In that sense, Gordon Brown did well this time around, and it played well to his taciturn image; an image that would have served him splendidly had he stayed true to it more often. This time he was also very effective – in using the one statement he did make – condemning the hero’s welcome the convicted terrorist received on his return to Tripoli.
Meanwhile, Bronwen Maddox got to the heart of the wider issues at stake in yesterday’s The Times:
The release of the Lockerbie bomber symbolises Libya’s move in from the cold. Obama and Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, may have condemned the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister — and by inference the British Government’s lack of intervention — but the Administration is giving time and attention to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
I would add that the release also symbolizes – on the world stage – that Scotland’s devolved government is more than a symbolic institution. That was a point well understood by the Scottish National Party’s leader Alex Salmond when he wholeheartedly, and without much public backing, backed Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.
Yes, this was a complex affair. Not least the latest statement from the Colonel’s son Saif al Islam Gaddafi clarifying how his earlier comments about the release, a prisoner transfer agreement and trade deal had been misunderstood by the media. Perhaps he should have stayed silent first time around or picked his first words more carefully. There was, he said, no quid pro quo.
By the way, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s account of the relationship of Scottish justice to his release is compelling here.
The truth is that there has been much misreporting and even more speculation about the known facts (not many) by politicians and media bent on taking the moral high ground. All good fun, but most of it will not pass the test of time.
But Britain is not alone in getting into a flap over Libya. Switzerland, where I live, was once thought exemplary at managing such delicate affairs. However, one of the Alpine-state’s cantons “declared war” on Muammar Gadhafi’s other son, Hannibal, when it arrested him, without first considering the consequences for the country as a whole. The Swiss government was later forced to apologize after Libya withdrew its billions from Swiss banks, detained two Swiss in Libya, and cut off oil supplies.
The lessons? I stand by wisdom of the Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz, a master of strategy and tactics. He said that in order to win a war (one infers PR, diplomatic and commercial as well as military) one does not need to win every battle, or indeed any battles at all. It is the sense of the bigger picture, of knowing where one’s long term interests lie as one makes compromises that matters. It is about knowing – conceptualizing – how the jigsaw fits together that at the end of the action separates leaders, winners, and big thinkers from the also-ran.