Gaddafi And His Regime: Former Foreign Minister Talks Nukes, Henchmen And Libya's Future
When Mike O’Brien first met Colonel Gaddafi the Libyan leader was wearing cut-off shorts and a bush hat with its front turned up.
“It was very strange. He’s eccentric, he’s clearly quite deluded. He thought that the whole world hung on his every word. I'd read his green book, which has got his philosophy of politics in. He was clearly a strange guy, but this is also someone who had power for 42 years so not a stupid one.”
The former Labour foreign office minister told Huffpost UK of his lengthy dealings with the former Libyan information minister Moussa Koussa, who for many years was the front man for the Libyan regime overseas and the alleged mastermind of the Lockerbie bombing.
O'Brien also told us how he always believed Gaddafi's regime would crumble one day: “He was a despot and thankfully people have a way of getting rid of despots, I think it happened in the last few days more quickly than I expected, but all the better for that. We thought he would probably be there for a while but despots like this tend to have a shelf life and they sow the seeds of his own destruction.
“I don’t think anyone thought he’d be there indefinitely, but nobody thought he’d be there for 42 years. Our objectives were clear - to stop him dealing weapons and to stop him supporting terrorism.”
He was there for talks with the Gaddafi regime in August 2002 - and was the first British politician to reach out to the Libyan regime in nineteen years. Yet he says he has “no regrets” about the last Labour government’s relationship with the despot.
“Gaddafi was supporting terrorism, we stopped that... we did.”
O’Brien said after MI6 went out to Libya, Gaddafi's own security officials were pointing out nuclear facilities in the country: “I heard the story that one of our guys was driving along in a car and the Libyan person, the security person from Moussa Koussa who had been told to co-operate, said, ‘On our left, we have the nuclear facility, which you know all about.' Our guy said, ‘Oh yes, of course.'
“We knew he was developing nuclear weapons, we didn’t know the extent of it.”
But O’Brien’s relationship with Libya was not all about nuclear proliferation – Gaddafi also sent his son, Saif al-Islam, to try to negotiate the terms of the Government’s apology to the Lockerbie victims in late 2002.
“Saif and Moussa [Koussa] came in, and what was interesting was how Saif was sent by his father to speak to me about Lockerbie – we were in the process of negotiating compesentation and an apology.
“Saif wanted to negotiate the apology. Moussa was sitting behind Saif and rolling his eyes, he was just embarrassed. Basically we ignored whatever Saif said, and negotiated either with the [then] foreign secretary who’s also defected now ...or Moussa.”
O'Brien says nowadays Gaddafi can be seen as almost the opposite of Saddam Hussein: “He’d done more than we thought, and Saddam had done less than we thought.”
He adds: “In terms of any regrets, just ask yourself this question, would we today be much more worried if Gaddafi had a nuclear bomb? And of course he didn’t, so we could send in RAF in, we could assist the rebels.”
He says it was the “right judgment” to engage Gaddafi and ensure he wasn't developing nuclear weapons, but Britain now has to make the right judgment again.
He wants Britain to lead the way in helping the Libyans reconstruct their country after Gaddafi’s regime crumbles, but with one caveat: “In terms of what we do now, the key thing is we have law and order, the key thing is we don’t copy what Paul Bremer did in Iraq, de-Baathification, getting rid of all the senior army officers and senior police. What the National Transitional Council need to be aware of is that it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t seem to be doing that in Benghazi where it’s in control, but they’ve got to also broaden their base.”
O'Brien believes the situation in Libya is delicate. “It’s all going to be very difficult. As Obama rightly said, this is a tipping point for Libya. The question is where will it tip. Will it tip towards despotism or, I’d be more optimistic about this, a more liberal society?
“It could potentially become a democracy. We need to be optimistic about the capabilities of Middle Eastern countries to do this, we’re hopeful for Egypt and Tunisia - let us also be helpful for Libya and Syria”.