There is an old saying that diplomats are paid to lie for their country. In a most revealing interview in The Sunday Times of Malta, Britain’s Ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, demonstrated his expertise, not in lying, but in massaging the truth of what is about to explode in the North Africa desert.
Make no mistake, a major military operation by a collection of foreign powers is in the works to tackle Isis and instal a UN-backed government but the shabby way it has been put together carries the risk it will blow back in everyone’s faces.
First, there is the strange situation that Millett takes his orders from Britain’s Libya envoy, Jonathan Powell, a contractor to the FCO. Yes, the same Powell who, along with then prime minister Tony Blair, brokered the deal with Muammar Gaddafi to end his dictatorship’s isolation a decade ago - and lead to fat Blair consultancies with that same tyrant after the prime minister left office.
Among other beneficiaries of this new opening up of Gaddafi’s dictatorship was a massive property development contract handed out to a company chaired by none other than Powell’s brother, Lord Charles Powell, which also involved an array of colourful London-based, well-known Arab millionaires. Which makes Powell more of a close relative of an interested party.
Then there are the weapons he referred to. Last week’s annual report by the UN Security Council panel of experts revealed Libya is awash with them, imported from all corners of the earth by all sides, the UN’s arms embargo notwithstanding. But Millett revealed that he wants to sell Libya yet more - but only to the ‘right’ militias, that is, those supporting the new UN-backed government of national accord (GNA).
The GNA, designed to replace Libya’s two warring governments, in Tripoli and Tobruk, is the cornerstone of Westernpolicy in Libya, designed to unite thecountry to turn its united guns on Isis. Hence the weapons.
Millett insists the weapons will only go to the ‘right’ militias, an echo of a Western statement about supporting the ‘right kind’ of terrorists in Syria in the war against Isis.
Looking at the militia mayhem in Libya, and the ability of weapons to leak not just into the country, but back out again in routes across Africa, one wonders just who these ‘right’ militias are.
And who will make sure militia chiefs are not tempted to sell them to the highest bidder, such as perhaps terrorist formations?
In relaxed mood, Millett then insisted that there would be no British “combat troops” sent to Libya.
The key word is “combat”.
Much of the fallout for this clumsy step to create a third government for Libya will be felt in Malta
Troops are already on the ground, in the shape of special forces rubbing shoulders with American, French and Italian counterparts and who are ready to guide jets to bomb Isis positions.
A thousand more troops are likely to be sent, not for “combat” but for training Libyan forces, though quite why you need 1,000, a figure mentioned in past statements, to do the job has not been explained. Just what will all those troops do with their day?
Then there is the rumpus over the US President’s comments last week where he shifted blame for Libya’s chaos onto Prime Minister David Cameron as a “free rider” for the operations that ousted Gaddafi leading to today’s power vacuum. No, Millet insists, Cameron was not a free rider.
Last year, the UK had already spent £8 million on humanitarian assistance. It was assistance, which, President Barack Obama might point out, was only necessary because Britain had neglected to keep a watchful eye on Libya as the situation unravelled.
But Millett is not the villain of the peace. Just as diplomats are paid to be economical with the truth, so they are paid to serve their government. He is a man to be respected for his past record and I genuinely feel sorry for him.
The real villains of the peace are Millett’s bosses, for joining with the US to instal an unelected, unpopular new government - still in exile by the way - opposed by both the existing governments.
Much of the fallout for this clumsy step to create a third government for Libya will be felt in Malta, where commercial battles rage between the two existing Libyan governments over control of a host of enterprises headquartered here - and which are soon to have unity government leaders also pushing for control.
The Valletta court battle for the public telecommunications company LPTIC highlighted the complicated split and a new tussle is underway for control of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), the Tobruk-appointed office of which is situated in Malta.
For now, the LIA battle is in London but in a bizarre twist the case was last week controversially stopped in mid flow on advice from Britain’s Foreign Office.
The judge making the order, which keeps both existing governments from getting their hands on this $65 billion asset, is none other than William Blair, brother of - you guessed it, Tony.
Never mind that Tony worked with the LIA in the latter Gaddafi years.
Conflict of interest?
A professional loyal British ambassador couldn’t possibly comment. However, this scandal is both political and financial and can only grow and grow with time.
All roads lead to the need for British parliamentary committees to quizTony Blair and his associates todiscover the full facts surrounding this Libyan debacle.
Richard Galustian is a security analyst.