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Matthew Parris

Détente is back in fashion, thank heaven, and the horrors of Bam could change history

Détente is back in fashion, thank heaven, and the horrors of Bam could change history

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

Should liberal internationalists feel irritated when neoconservative hawks piggyback on to the successes of our own approach, and take the credit for themselves?

No, we should feel satisfied that they want to, for it is a kind of repentance. Their tantrums past and the damage obvious, we can be pretty confident that they will not repeat such mistakes. We can feel quiet pleasure in their implicit acceptance that liberal internationalism works, after all. There will be no more Iraqs — you may count on that. Towards Tripoli, towards Tehran, and hopefully towards Damascus too, détente is back in fashion, thank heaven.

The important thing is that the firebrands in Washington are being marginalised and the traditionalists are winning. Colin Powell is back in the mainstream of US foreign policy. In Britain the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has shown Downing Street that years of careful work behind the scenes can bring a Prime Minister useful prizes to claim as his own. At the heads of both governments have been standing two frightened men anxious to justify the enormous foreign-policy blunder they made together this year. Let them. We know they know.

Pacing the corridors of humbler places where columnists and editorialisers dwell are journalists whose early triumphalism in Iraq has made them look foolish; they too must satisfy wounded pride. Let them. Let them pretend they always knew that old-fashioned diplomacy would bring Colonel Gaddafi round.

Let them pretend that when they called the government of Iraq part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ they did not mean to discourage the thawing of relations for which subtler men were working. Let us simply welcome the thaw.

As the year ended, steady diplomacy, careful intelligence-gathering, graduated pressure and simple human kindness were achieving results in Iran and Libya which the impatient warmongering of the yee-hah tendency among George W. Bush’s advisers could not possibly have secured; while in Iraq the results of trigger-happy foreign policy told their own story. What need have we who opposed the war to elaborate on that?


Any suggestion that the occupation of Iraq was what won Gaddafi over will not survive the inside story, when it is told. Already it seems clear that long before the attack on Baghdad, this rapprochement was well under way.

The elements of the British-led (and partly undeclared) policy towards Libya over many years are now clear: unremitting pressure, international scrutiny, tough sanctions, the lure of trade, a willingness to talk, and patience. If all this sounds strangely familiar, then be reminded that it is essentially what some of us were recommending in the case of Iraq.

Nor do the parallels stop there. It is now clear that precisely this approach towards the Iraqi regime was already three-quarters of the way towards achieving what has just been achieved with Libya. Saddam Hussein was getting nowhere with his ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction; the infrastructure of his country was in a shaky condition; he posed less of a threat to his neighbours than was feared; and there was absolutely no danger of his attacking Britain. All the West needed to do was press on with the UN inspections, maintain the pressure and keep its nerve in a cat-and-mouse game that Saddam could not win.

We now see what the same approach was achieving in Libya. Gaddafi was growing old, cold and lonely. Isolation was getting him nowhere. Sanctions had taken their toll, his WMD and nuclear programmes were not, it seems, making much progress, and he actively wanted to return to the fold of the community of nations. What was needed — beyond an iron will to maintain pressure — was bridge-building. In helping provide this, Britain did something it is rather good at.

It is patent nonsense to suggest that fear of a US invasion was what brought Gaddafi to the negotiating table. He had been bombed before — by Ronald Reagan. Surveying the mess in which the US–British-led coalition finds itself in Baghdad today, Gaddafi would have felt more confident this month that no US attack was in prospect than he could have felt for quite some time. Does anybody really think that between now and the next presidential election George W. Bush is going to invade another Arab country? Syrian and Iranian leaders can sleep easier in their beds this New Year than last. An old man now, Gaddafi feared not a violent death but leaving his successors a benighted country.

Libya has acted not in panic but calmly: on a dispassionate view of an endlessly dreary future. What would have persuaded Saddam to deal, did persuade Gaddafi to deal, is persuading Fidel Castro to deal, may persuade North Korea to deal, and will encourage those in Iran and Syria who are minded to deal, is not the fear that ‘Terror’ is about to be beaten, but the knowledge that it can never win. Therein lies the potency of the negative side of Western diplomacy — the stick, if you like.

But there has to be a positive side too; there has to be a carrot. What liberal internationalism believes (and what some neoconservatives are coming to understand) is that it very rarely works to treat other governments, or peoples, or religions, as though they were the embodiment either of evil or of unreason. There are certainly wrong ideas and bad people in politics — how else can we describe Saddam, Kim Il Sung (or indeed Gaddafi)? — but their reactions remain the ordinary human reactions. If you prick them, they bleed. If you goad them, they are infuriated. Likewise they can be calmed, bribed, coaxed.

Their hearts may even be softened. I have enough respect for my own human race to believe that a natural and big-hearted reaction by us to the awful tragedy that has just befallen hundreds of thousands of people in Iran may be capable of generating the goodwill which could alter history.

We are so apt to dwell on the belligerence of religious fundamentalists that I think we overlook the extent to which their zeal may partly be fed by anxiety. To us they may appear demonic, but perhaps they feel more like outcasts. The modern world — to an Islamic fundamentalist — must seem a threatening place: towering over him and his co-religionists, vastly outnumbering them, out-gunning them, out-earning and outspending them, offending and insulting them wherever they look.

Is it merely sentimental to suppose that if we can make our world look kinder and more respectful, if we can help them believe we are prepared to hold out a place in it for them, some among them may respond? Those awful scenes in Bam, for all their wail and shriek, whisper something too: that even in realpolitik there may be a place for the quality of mercy.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of

the Times.


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