Tony Blair’s 2004 meeting with Muammar Gaddafi was momentous by any standards. Blair’s arrival in Libya marked the first visit to the country by a British prime minister since 1943, and proceeded against protests by some relatives of the Lockerbie dead. His purpose was to encourage Gaddafi’s perceived desire “to make common cause with us against al-Qaeda, extremists and terrorism,” he explained after talks held in a Bedouin tent in the desert outside Tripoli. Britain also registered instant benefits as Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell unveiled a substantial deal to prospect for gas off the Libyan coast before the leaders’ confab had even concluded. (Blair’s second visit to Gaddafi’s tent, in 2007, heralded another coup for British enterprise, this time a pact between BP and Libya’s state run oil company.) Yet it was another aspect of the historic first tryst that lingered in the memory of British officials present that day. “It was monstrously airless in that tent and Gaddafi kept breaking wind,” one told me, grimacing with distaste.
With Blair and his successor and Labour party colleague Gordon Brown both out of power, Britain’s current coalition government might have been expected to throw open the windows and welcome the fresh winds blowing from North Africa and the Middle East. And when Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron traveled to Cairo on Feb. 21, the first world leader to put in an appearance since President Mubarak’s ouster, his spin doctors presented his planned four-day Middle East tour as a gesture of solidarity with the protestors in Egypt and a wider restatement of Cameron’s commitment to democracy. That symbolism quickly tarnished, however, after the tour was revealed as a long-planned trade mission; amongst the British captains of industry accompanying Cameron were eight defense contractors. In Cameron’s extraordinary— and extraordinarily bad—decision to proceed with a schedule that also took him to Bahrain, itself in foment, and distracted him from leading Britain’s response to the unfolding crisis in Libya, The Independent‘s columnist Mary Dejevsky spots evidence of a fundamental flaw in Cameron’s judgment that she believes could distort his premiership and deface his legacy.
In the short term, the prime ministerial trip intensified the bad smell around the government as the increasingly accident-prone coalition bungled the evacuation of Britons from Libya and gave every appearance of disarray. Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague apologized for delays in mounting a rescue operation amid concerns that defense cuts had diminished the U.K.’s capabilities to protect its citizens or assist in any implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg curtailed his mistimed family skiing holiday, after appearing to suggest he had “forgotten” he was supposed to assume charge in Cameron’s absence. The Prime Minister also cut short his trade mission and both men were back in Westminster today in time for meetings with the National Security Committee and Cobra, the Cabinet’s emergency planning committee.
In a statement after the meetings, Cameron warned the Libyan regime that “the world is watching you and the world will hold you to account.” It’s a message that he and other world leaders would do well to take to heart as they scramble to come to terms with the emerging realities in a string of countries whose citizens have been ill-served by the kind of realpolitik that brought Blair to Tripoli.