Sometimes there are articles that simply get under my skin and that create a pesky need to address them individually. John Deverell’s op-ed in The Guardian, There’s no shame in talking to people like Gaddafi, was one of those pieces.
Deverell is a British military figure who notes, with obvious pride, that he was involved in negotiations between the UK and Gaddafi. He is frustrated with a trend of criticizing the British government and institutions over their relationship with Gaddafi:
“it has become politically expedient to decry the relationship fostered since 2003 between the last British government and Gaddafi’s regime.
Former prime minister Tony Blair, officers from the British secret intelligence service, the London School of Economics ( in the news again last week): all have been criticised for the personal relationships they built with senior Libyans, to the extent of being accused of turning a blind eye to human rights and other abuses.”
Deverell believes that none of these institutions have anything to apologize for. According to him, what they did was, quite simply, necessary. Rather than being an issue of concern, the relationship between Libya and the UK (and it could be said, for the US, France, Italy etc.),
“should remind us of the importance of communication and of building personal relationships with the other side – irrespective of the differences we hold – rather than to the contrary.”
Without “communication”, according to Deverell, Libya would still be developing weapons of mass destruction, building an arsenal of nuclear weapons and sponsoring international terrorism. British and Western institutions and governments should not be derided for “communicating” with Gaddafi but rather be praised!
Deverell adds that diplomacy must always come first and that Western treatment of Gaddafi’s Libya is demonstrative of this belief:
“Therefore communication, dialogue and the search for areas of common interest leading to a potential ‘win-win’ solution should never be disregarded as an option. As Winston Churchill noted, ‘better jaw-jaw than war-war’.”
Deverell is absolutely correct here: communication should always come before warfare. Few disagree that military intervention is an absolute last option to be exercised only in the most dire situations or when all other non-violent options have been exhausted.
But the challenge isn’t whether to “jaw-jaw” before “war-war”. It is about knowing who to “jaw-jaw” with and, just as importantly, how to “jaw-jaw”. Readers will surely be aware of the story of how the term ‘appeasement’ got a bad name. In 1938, Nazi Germany agitated to invade Czechoslovakia. In an attempt to avert war, European leaders, led by Neville Chamberlain decided to negotiate with Hitler, convinced that the Nazi leader could be negotiated with. Instead, Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler failed miserably, Czechoslovakia was wiped off the map and Europe slipped into its most costly and violent period in modern history.
Chamberlain’s appeasement is a lesson in who we should and should not negotiate with. Hitler had no intention to “jaw-jaw” peace in Europe. If that wasn’t obvious in 1938 (and many believe it was), then it didn’t take long before it became painfully clear.
What Deverell appears to be saying is that the only values or ethical considerations that matter are those which achieve desirable ends. Even if what is achieved comes at the cost of human rights violations and the suffering of civilians, we cannot make a judgement on the initial decision to put aside ethical concerns because they were put aside for good reasons and with good intentions.
In the context of Libya this means that because talking to Gaddafi in the early 2000s led to the dismantling of his nuclear programme and switching currents in international terrorism, the West should be inviolable to criticism. Deverell doesn’t spare us from heightened rhetoric, describing his trip to talk with Gaddafi and his inner circle as follows:
“We were well aware of allegations laid at the door of Gaddafi’s inner circle. But the potential prizes for successful engagement were great. World security – at least in part – depended on it.”
This is a poor argument for primarily one reason: it conflates dealing with Gaddafi with propping up and legitimizing him and his regime. No one has said it better than Stephen Glover who accepts that getting concessions on terrorism and nuclear arms made talking to Gaddafi necessary but argues that:
“What is not defensible is the subsequent indulging of this horrible man, and treating him as though he were a normal leader of a normal country.”
Deverell, however, would like us to ignore the difference between dealing with someone like Gaddafi and indulging him; between getting concessions on nuclear arms proliferation and being complicit in extraordinary rendition and torture with the Libyan regime; between ensuring Gaddafi didn’t sponsor international terrorism and providing him with enough military hardware to repress his people. Indeed, Deverell and the other defenders of the Western policies of necessity which propped up Gaddafi’s regime would like us to conflate acts of necessary evil with acts that are necessarily evil.
Such commentary drives a wedge between what international politics is and where people want it to go. For him, not only should the West approach any world leader – regardless of their intentions or character – but Western states can dance with them too. When it becomes clear that these states have been dancing with the devil, they have nothing to be apologetic for. Dancing is just part of the game.
In the end, however, does Deverell’s unapologetic realpolitik implicitly not reward the Gaddafi’s of the world? Only by criticizing the cynical belief that world security depends on some leaders indulging evil ones can we move away from the politics Deverell espouses to the type of politics that sees cozying up with Gaddafi and his ilk as it should be: wrong.
This is a cross-post from the blog Justice in Conflict