Sometimes in life, you just have to admit that you got it wrong. With hindsight it was a mistake to release the Lockerbie bomber Adelbasset ali al Megrahi on compassionate grounds in 2009. The Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, did the right thing by the tenets of Scots law. He thought long and hard and, on the basis of medical advice that al Megrahi had three months to live, he made the wrong call. So did I, by the way, so I’m not exercising 20/20 hindsight here.
Why was it wrong? First of all, because of the impact on the Lockerbie victims’ families, who have had to endure two years of seeing al Megrahi celebrated as a national hero by Col Gaddafi’s murderous regime in Tripoli. He has become a potent symbol of defiance by the regime against Western “imperialism”. He was paraded again this week in the latest show of strength by the Libyan dictator. Of course, we didn’t know in 2009 that we would be at war, effectively, with Gaddafi but Megrahi has now turned into a major propaganda asset for the enemy.
Damage has also been done to Scotland’s image in America and the rest of the world and it has made our justice system look absurd. Kenny MacAskill took guidance on Scots law on compassionate release, but he was not bound to follow it. In retrospect he should have said that this involved such an exceptional crime, under such extraordinary circumstances, that it would be morally deficient, if legally correct, to release him from jail. Megrahi could have been allowed compassionate time with his family in Scotland, while still a prisoner.
And yes, I realise that there were serious doubts about al Megrahi’s guilt. The key prosecution witness, Tony Gauchi, was allegedly paid $2m by the US authorities. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Board appeared minded to give him another appeal. But the fact remains that he was convicted by the judges in Camp Zeist in a fair trial; found guilty of the worst terrorist single atrocity in British history. That stands.
Megrahi’s release also fuelled the conspiracy stories that, for some reason, Alex Salmond had become Tony Blair’s bum boy and had agreed to spring the Lockerbie bomber so that BP could get its hands on Libyan oil. The infamous “deal in the desert” did involve a prisoner transfer agreement , though the Scottish government had no involvement in that, and did not repatriate him under any kind of guidance from London. It was, as Salmond said, a Scottish decision taken in Scotland. The wrong one – albeit for the right reasons.
Many are now saying much the same about the West’s military support for the rebel cause. And it has to be said that the decision to provide air support to the pro-democracy forces hasn’t worked out as planned. Six months on there is stalemate in Libya and a weakening of resolve among the European powers who authorised it. America is standing aside from this one, having made two expensive mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is Europe’s mess – specifically David Cameron and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mess – and it is up to us to sort it out.
If it can be sorted. It is beginning to look as if partition of Libya might be the end result, which is desperately unfortunate, not least for the Libyan people left living in the rubble. Partition will be challenged on both sides – rather as it was in Northern Ireland, though with a lot more fire-power. Gaddafi will not rest until he has conquered the East, killed the rebels and laid waste to the city of Benghazi. He clearly has the money to do it, claims to have armed a million of his supporters, and will use any weapons at his disposal – many sold to him by France and Britain – to extinguish this rebellion. This means that the West cannot pull out, much as it would like to.
This week, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague announced, out of the blue, that he could foresee a settlement with Gaddafi remaining in Libya. This has horrified the rebels an international jurists who believe that the dictator should be indicted for war crimes. You only needed to see this week’s mass rallies in Tripoli, with our friend al Megrahi in the celebrity enclosure, to see that Gaddafi remains a potent force in his own tribal fiefdom. Many of those cheering may have been doing so out of fear – but the fact is they are out there, and Gaddafi is arming them. We can no longer hold to the fiction that the Libyan dictator is fighting his war with mercenaries alone. The idea that Gaddafi would retire peacefully to “Dun-dictating” to sit out his remaining years in peace is laughable.
Was the subsequent expelling of Libyan diplomats from London an attempt by Hague, realising his mistake, to recapture the initiative? Probably. It doesn’t make a huge deal of sense to expel Gaddafi’s diplomatic corps if you are trying to broker some kind of deal with him. Nasty lot they may be, and up to no good. But diplomats from hostile powers are there for a purpose – and that is to channel communications. Mr Hague appears to have gained his mojo but lost his marbles.
But it was still the right to support the rebellion in March. Had it not been for Western air power, Gaddafi would have used his heavy weapons relentlessly against Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. We could not stand by and allow a massacre to happen on the other side of the Mediterranean from Europe’s holiday beaches. It would have been the Guernica of our generation, and Western leaders were right to act, even if the outcome was not what they wished.
If Gaddafi is allowed to prevail, we can say farewell to the “Arab Spring”, or the “North African Spring”, or any kind of democratic thawing of the dictatorships that have kept that part of the world living in fear and servitude for so many years. The secret policemen and the torturers would sleep peacefully in their beds again. So, as Churchill said, sometimes the only course of action is what he called KBO – “keep buggering on”. As with Megrahi, you make your decision, and have to live with the consequences, right or wrong.