In 2002, a few months before the invasion of Iraq, I was invited to speak at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas. I had a meeting with Baker, one of America’s best post-1945 secretaries of state, who served under his friend George H.W. Bush. Together, they drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.
Jim Baker is an unsentimental politician from the realist school of American foreign policy. Like most of Bush Snr’s entourage, he clearly had doubts about invading Iraq. He recalled Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, complaining after the liberation of Kuwait that Britain was not getting a fair share of the reconstruction contracts. They had been hogged by American companies. I could bear witness to this. In 1991, I was at our embassy in Washington, on the commercial side. One of my jobs was to go to the Kuwait reconstruction office in downtown DC to press for contracts to be given to British companies. It was a thankless task: I felt more like a mendicant than the representative of the second most important military power in a war which had freed Kuwait.
Baker gave me some advice. If there were another war against Saddam, reconstruction and oil contracts would follow. ‘Douglas left it too late. Get in there now,’ he urged. ‘Don’t wait until the war is over and then ask politely for contracts. Go straight to the top in the White House and insist on a fair share of the business.’ I reported this to Downing Street and the Foreign Office, adding my own urgings. I do not recall to what extent, if at all, Blair’s government acted on my report.
Today, the coalition, especially its Tory component, has made a great song and dance about giving British diplomacy a much more commercial focus, with the emphasis on the promotion of trade and investment. This concentration on our economic national interest is wholly to be applauded. In the almost 40 years I was a diplomat, national prosperity always sat alongside national security as the two most important strategic objectives of British foreign policy — but every new government must be allowed to reinvent the wheel.
Still, where is this focus in Libya, now that Gaddafi is in the twilight of his days? It is no excuse that his sudden near-collapse has caught everyone on the hop. Jim Baker would have had us preparing for this day months ago. The public tussle between us and the French to take the credit for Gaddafi’s imminent demise is just minor, if unseemly, political theatre compared with the more serious business of winning contracts to rebuild oilfields. If ever there were a British national interest in Libyan affairs, it is that.
Yet reports suggest that Britain has been ‘dawdling’ in the competition for business, while the French, Italians and, heaven help us, the Germans, who declined to take part in Nato operations against Gaddafi, have been positioning their companies to win ‘multi-billion’ pound contracts from the National Transition Council in Benghazi. We can take scant comfort from the UK Trade and Investment spokesman who announced that it was ‘monitoring’ the situation, with the inference that it would do nothing purposeful until hostilities ceased. Meanwhile, we are being told an awful lot about how Britain has learnt the lessons of Iraq and is working on a detailed blueprint to assure law and order and essential services in the new Libya.
This seems to me to stand our national interest on its head. Libya is not Iraq, under the heel of foreign powers. Diplomats are as prone as generals to fight the last war. Technical assistance is one thing; and it would be right to help Libya restore some of its wrecked infrastructure. But to try to implement a plan for good governance would inevitably mean entangling ourselves in a web of tribal, regional and religious divisions.
Napoleon wanted lucky generals. Cameron is a lucky prime minister. He took a high-stakes gamble by leading the charge with Sarkozy into Libya. It seems to have paid off. He surely does not want to play double-or-quits now by getting sucked into more nation-building and peacekeeping. Here is the true lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq — let us have no more pious bleating about bringing democracy to benighted countries, something over which we have no control and which may not even be in our interests. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood looks best organised to profit from the democratic elections when they come.
Instead, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet should do what it is proper for them to do, which is to advance our nation’s prosperity. Let them press the case hard in Benghazi for British companies to receive a generous share of the new Libya’s business. They owe us.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 27, 2011