Category Archives: Tony Blair

Libya and Gaza: Double Standards in Conflict Reporting at The New York Times

Hats off to The New York Times for being one of the first, if not the first, to report last Friday that Col. Gaddafi’s forces in Libya have been firing cluster bombs into residential neighborhoods of Misurata, the sole city in western Libya still in rebel hands, thereby escalating the possibility of major civilian carnage.

Deployment of the weapon, along with ground-to-ground rockets, represents a significant intensification in the two-month old crisis in Libya sparked by the so-called Arab Spring of democratic rebellions that have surged through the Middle East.

The Libyan uprising, however, is the only one of these insurrections that has seen direct Western military involvement and it was the apparent threat to civilian life of the sort reported this weekend by the NYTimes and other media outlets that brought that about. Following an allegedly bloodcurdling threat from Gaddafi in early March to exact revenge against the citizens of Benghazi, the eastern city that has been the epicenter of the revolt, the United Nations Security Council authorised the use of force to protect civilians.

Justifying US involvement in the NATO-led bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s forces that followed, President Barack Obama said: “If we waited one more day, Benghazi . . . could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.’’

Cluster bombs: a devastating weapon when used against civiians

Gaddafi’s use of cluster bombs clearly increases the danger to Libya’s civilian population. The munitions, which contain many smaller, shrapnel-packed bomblets are designed to shower wide areas with deadly explosives. On the battlefield they can cut down scores of soldiers at a time but in heavily populated urban neighborhoods the weapon can kill and maim on a massive scale. As The NYTimes put it, describing the deployment of the weapon along with rockets:

Both of these so-called indiscriminate weapons, which strike areas with a dense succession of high-explosive munitions, by their nature cannot be fired precisely. When fired into populated areas, they place civilians at grave risk.

The dangers were evident beside one of the impact craters on Friday (in Misurata), where eight people had been killed while standing in a bread-line. Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.

The NYTimes’ report came just as other media outlets, such as The Boston Globe, were beginning to offer a platform to more skeptical analyses of the rationale for war in Libya. These pointed out that not only did Gaddafi not threaten a civilian massacre in Benghazi – this claim was made instead by rebels – he had offered an amnesty to those who threw their weapons away and even offered rebels an escape route to Egypt. The use of cluster bombs, however, tilts the balance the other way, strengthening the view that Gaddafi is prepared to kill his own people in order to survive.

Nonetheless cynics will be suspicious about this report and its timing. After all, it comes as the Western-led effort in the oil-rich North African state is badly running out of steam and disagreements over tactics and strategy are rife amongst the NATO allies. Gaddafi has also taken advantage of confusion in his enemy’s camp and has forced the rebels to flee from eastern cities they had captured. With the rebels’ rag tag army once more on the run, NATO and its political leadership are facing a humiliating setback at the hands of one of the Arab world’s most eccentric leaders.

Gaddafi and Obama in happier days

By coincidence or not, the three Western leaders spearheading the NATO campaign, Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, put their names to an Op-Ed which appeared this weekend in major US and European newspapers that appeared to admit for the first time that the aim of the operation was now not just to protect civilian lives but to effect the ousting of the Libyan dictator.

Prior to this Obama, for one, was keen to rule out any charge that he and his allies planned to overthrow Gaddafi. “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake”, he told the American public last month. It was a stance dictated by the knowledge that doing otherwise would not go down well in the Arab world. It was one thing to drop bombs on Arab cities in the name of humanitarian exigency, but, in the context of Bush’s war in Iraq, an entirely different matter when the goal was to get rid of a government. In the wake of a growing stalemate in Libya, however, that had changed. Now, the trio of war leaders said in their Op-Ed: “Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good”.

The cynic will say that the curtain has now been pulled aside to reveal the real motives behind the NATO campaign, for which the expression of humanitarian concern was a convenient cover. The real goal was to extract payback from an Arab leader who was a real thorn in the West’s flesh not that long ago, whether by cocking a snook at the Reagan White House, funding and arming groups like the IRA which came close to assassinating a British prime minister or stirring up trouble in a host of Arab and African countries whose leaders were allies of the West.

Muammar and Tony: the former British PM is on the payroll, says Gaddafis son, Saif

According to this scenario this was too good an opportunity to settle some old scores, notwithstanding Gaddafi’s humbling, not to say embarrassing efforts to ingratiate himself with the West in recent years (his new pals included Tony Blair, who was on the family payroll according to Gaddafi’s son Saif, and Silvio Berlusconi who is said to have got the idea of hosting his now infamous “bunga-bunga parties” from Gaddafi). That Libya also produces the highest grade oil of any Arab state and that the people who are slated to take over from Gaddafi will likely be grateful to the West in all the most suitable and appropriate ways is a bonus, and a big one at that.

Muammar and Silvio: Gaddafi "introduced Italian leader to bunga-bunga parties"

All of this may well be true but to suggest, as some might, that The New York Times story is therefore a very timely and convenient excuse for NATO to escalate the war against Gaddafi would be a good deal more credible if the story itself was dodgy and on the level of say Judith Miller’s notorious aluminum tubes report, a piece of fiction which helped the Bush White House raise the spectre of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein to justify the Iraq war while staining The NYTimes’ reputation, some say indelibly.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The NYTimes reporter, CJ Chivers was able to examine and photograph remnants of three mortars fired last week at Misurata, each filled with twenty-one “submunitions”, i.e. smaller bombs designed to kill people and penetrate armor. He was also able to trace the bombs to their Spanish manufacturer, Instalaza and quoted Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group which verified that cluster bombs were being used by the Libyan government forces.

A young Iraqi victim of American cluster bombs

For good measure, Chivers noted that the United States is not amongst the countries who have signed a Convention barring their use, implying therefore that any attempt by America to make a human rights issue out of all this would sound hypocritical to say the least. (US forces also used the weapon in Iraq, causing sometimes terrible civilian casualties) He also spoke to eye witnesses who had been nearby when the cluster mortars landed and exploded. So all in all a solid, well-reported piece of journalism and an article of which The New York Times can be justifiably proud.

I mention all of this by way of contrast and the contrast is to the same paper’s coverage of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, a military operation that was code named Operation Cast Lead and whose principal victims were also civilians. According to Palestinians sources quoted in the Goldstone Report between 1390 and 1440 people were killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during that two or three week-long incursion and the vast majority, perhaps as many as 75 per cent, were ordinary, non-involved Gaza citizens. Over 100 women were killed and possibly as many as 350 of the fatalities were children. The Israelis have starkly different numbers which claim that the bulk of the dead were militants or combatants but have failed to produce evidence to back up their figures.

The civilian death toll was perhaps not on the same scale that Barack Obama seemed to suggest would have happened in Benghazi but for the intervention of the US and her allies but nonetheless it was large enough to suggest that the aim of the operation was less to punish the Hamas activists who were firing rockets into Israel and more to teach the population of Gaza a brutal lesson for voting Hamas into power and/or continuing to give them support.

The disparity between civilian and military casualties was large enough by itself to warrant the suspicion that this or something like it was the real mission goal and so was the choice of weaponry employed by the Israelis in Gaza’s packed, built up areas where the average population density is some 4,500 people per square kilometer.

The scale of civilian killings in Gaza was sufficiently large to inflame international public opinion and to oblige the United Nations to launch an investigation into Operation Cast Lead. The results of that investigation, the Goldstone Report, have damaged, possibly beyond repair, Israel’s already tarnished reputation for disrespecting the rights of Palestinian Arabs.

There is little doubt that the most controversial and disturbing weapon deployed in Gaza by Israel was white phosphorous (WP), a substance that is used conventionally to generate smoke and provide cover for troop movements. For that reason it is not a banned weapon. But using it in densely populated urban areas is an entirely different matter. Israel claimed it used WP legally, to give her soldiers a smokescreen but on the ground, in the tightly packed streets of Gaza it killed, maimed and terrified civilians.

An unforgettable image of Israels incursion into Gaza: a white phosphorous shell explodes above a Palestinian neighborhood

WP is used in two ways. Encased into artillery shells, it can be fired at ground targets like normal ordnance or it can be fused to explode in mid-air, showering down multiple streams of deep-yellow colored phosphorous embers. The chemical ignites when exposed to oxygen and can only be doused, but not extinguished by a covering of dirt of sand.

The effect of white phosphorous raining down on Gaza’s civilian population was devastating. Doctors interviewed by the Goldstone team spoke of horrifying burn injuries to its victims. WP sticks to the flesh and will burn until all the phosphorous is exhausted. In some cases victims were treated only to return the next day with wounds that were smoking with remnants of WP still burning deep into tissue and sometimes into the bone.

Medical staff learned that the only effective way to treat WP victims was to cut away large portions of flesh around the affected area. Some had limbs amputated, others were burned to death. Although there is little doubt that many more Gazans were killed by conventional weapons the gruesome, indiscriminate cruelty of white phosphorous marked it out as a truly horrifying and repellant weapon.

This is what is like to be on the receiving end of a white phosphorous shell

The Goldstone team indicted Israel for its use of the weapon, saying it had breached Articles 18 and 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which declare hospitals off-limits during wartime and parts of Protocol One of the Convention, effectively saying that Israel had undertaken military operations while disregarding the consequences for civilians. The Convention bars the use of WP against civilians and while Goldstone didn’t charge Israel with deliberately flouting the law, the report did say that the IDF was “systematically reckless” in its use of the weapon in built-up areas. One member of the Goldstone mission, former Irish Army officer, Colonel Desmond Travers has estimated that some 3,500 white phosphorous shells, containing around 400,000 individual wedges of the chemical were fired by the IDF during the incursion of Gaza.

Specifically, Goldstone’s people found that WP shells had been fired at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency at a time when the UN complex was being used to shelter some 700 civilians – one shell landed near a large oil tank and disaster was averted only by brave and speedy action on the part of staff members – and that the same weapon had been used against two hospitals, the Al Quds in Gaza city and the Al Wafa in the east of the city. The Goldstone report also chronicled the case of the Abu Halima family, about whose harrowing fate it had this to say:

On 4 January 2009, the bombardment reportedly increased as Israeli troops moved into and took control of al-Atatra neighbourhood. The Abu Halima family was sheltering in the home of Muhammad Sa’ad Abu Halima and Sabah Abu Halima in Sifaya village. The house has two floors; the ground floor is used for storage and the living quarters are on the upper floor. According to Sabah Abu Halima, 16 members of her immediate family were sheltering on the upper floor.

In the afternoon, after hearing that a shell had hit the adjacent house of Sabah Abu Halima’s brother-in-law, most of the family moved from the bedroom into a hallway in the middle of the upper floor, where they thought they would be better protected. At around 4.30 p.m., a white phosphorous shell came through the ceiling into the room where they were sheltering.

According to family members who survived, there was intense fire and white smoke in the room, the walls of which were glowing red. Five members of the family died immediately or within a short period: Muhammad Sa’ad Abu Halima (aged 45) and four of his children, sons Abd al-Rahim Sa’ad (aged 14), Zaid (aged 12) and Hamza (aged 8), and daughter Shahid (aged 18 months). Muhammad Sa’ad and Abd al-Rahim Sa’ad were decapitated, the others burnt to death. Five members of the family escaped and suffered various degrees of burns: Sabah Abu Halima, her sons Youssef (aged 16) and Ali (aged 4), daughter-in-law Ghada (aged 21), and Ghada’s daughter Farah (aged 2).

One horrifying consequence of a white phosphorous attack

So how did The New York Times cover the deployment of white phosphorous by the IDF in Gaza? Again by way of contrast, the best way to start answering that question is perhaps to look at how one its European rivals covered the same story. The paper in question is The Times of London. Now this is a paper that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable and the people at The New York Times tend to look down their collective noses at anything published by News International. After all,  many of Murdoch’s publications do have a reputation for tabloid-like trashiness, a scant respect for the facts and little in the way of ethical standards: take a look, for instance, at the phone hacking scandal currently embroiling The News of the World in London.

Not all of Murdoch’s children are brats, however, and The Times can sometimes rise majestically to the occasion. Its coverage of Israel’s deployment of white phosphorous was one such instance. The paper’s first story appeared on January 5th under the headline ‘Israel rains fire on Gaza with phosphorous shells’ and two days later, on January 8th, followed that up with a story about the horrifying injuries caused by WP, while noting that the IDF’s official denials that the weapon was in use and identifying the shells as being of US origin: “There is also evidence that the rounds have injured Palestinian civilians, causing severe burns. The use of white phosphorous against civilians is prohibited under international law”. Another story on January 12th provided more detailed evidence of widespread civilian casualties caused by the weapon.

On January 15th, The Times reported that the UNWRA complex in Gaza had been hit by white phosphorous shells and that the UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon had protested to the Israeli government (a counter claim by Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert that his forces had been forced to reply to Hamas attacks was not supported by Goldstone). It continued in terms that left little doubt the paper believed the Israelis to be liars: “The Israeli military has denied using white phosphorous shells in the Gaza offensive, although an investigation by The Times has revealed that dozens of Palestinians in Gaza have sustained serious injuries from the substance, which burns at extremely high temperatures.”

So how did The New York Times compare to its British equivalent? I did a search of the paper’s website and archive and trawled Lexis-Nexis for references in the paper to white phosphorous during Operation Cast Lead. In total there were just five reports and with the exception of the last article, filed after the Israelis had withdrawn from Gaza, the NYT’s references to WP were perfunctory, repeated IDF and Israeli government explanations for its use and made little if any mention of the death and injury caused to Gazan civilians.

The first was a story on January 11th by Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the NYT since March 2008. Although the subject had been well reported by The Times of London and other European newspapers up to a week beforehand, Bronner devoted just one sentence to WP in a report that led with Israel’s warnings to Gaza residents about a planned escalation of its incursion. Although Bronner also reported signs of growing international criticism of Israeli tactics and the dangers posed to Gazan civilians, the reference to WP was a meager one that carried echoes of the IDF’s line on its use. He wrote: “Human rights groups are also concerned about the Israeli use of white phosphorous, which creates smoke on a battlefield, at low altitudes or crowded areas, because it can burn like a kind of napalm.”

The second report came on January 16th, five days later and dealt with the shelling of the UNWRA complex. The article dwelt on Israeli doubts about the UN’s neutrality and complaints about its “institutional bias”, carried the IDF claim that its shelling was in response to Hamas fire and devoted just two paragraphs in a 1600 word article to the use of White Phosphorus.

Bylined Isabel Kershner, the story had this to say about the weapon:

Citing agency representatives who were present during the attack, Mr Gunness (a UNWRA spokesman) said three white phosphorous shells had hit the compound, causing fires that raged for hours, an allegation to which the Israeli military did not respond.

White phosphorous is a standard, legal weapon in armies, long used as a way to light up an area or to create a thick white smoke to obscure troop movements. While using it against civilians, or in an area where many civilians are likely to be affected, can be a violation of international law, Israel has denied using the substance improperly. On Wednesday, Hamas fired a phosphorous mortar shell into Israel, but no-one was hurt.

On January 22nd, the day after Israel withdrew from Gaza, The New York Times carried two pieces on WP, one by Ethan Bronner and Alan Cowell which reported that Israel had established a military investigation “to look into the issue” of alleged misuse of WP following allegations reported in what an IDF spokesman called “the foreign press”. It was the first admission by the paper that Israel’s use of white phosphorous had angered and incensed international opinion.

A second piece, solely by Ethan Bronner, finally put a human face to the consequences of white phosphorous use and reported on the ordeal of the Abu Halima family. Five members of the family, four children and their father, had perished in a WP attack over two weeks earlier and the incident had been widely reported, both in The Times of London and other European outlets, but it was only now that The New York Times was giving the story any coverage.

Ethan Bronner

Bronner quoted Sabah Abu Halima, the surviving widow, at length and also doctors who had treated survivors and had seen the horrific injuries up close. One doctor said that in a few cases the damage done by WP was so acute that “seemingly limited burns led to the patients’ deaths.” Sabah Abu Halima’s grief was so profound, she said she wanted to see Israel’s foreign minister and president “burn like my children burned”.

It was a good piece of reporting that well reflected the horrors visited upon Palestinian civilians by Israeli white phosphorous. But it came far too late, like the horse that bolted the stable. It also smacked of catch up by the Gray Lady, as if someone in the New York HQ had realized that the paper really ought to say something about the matter given the level of international concern over Israel’s behavior in Gaza. But by this stage the horse had galloped several fields away.

It could be said in the paper’s defense that The New York Times was hampered, as was all the media, by Israeli government restrictions on media access to the Gaza war zone. Reporters like Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner couldn’t actually report from the ground, could not see the evidence or lack thereof for themselves and couldn’t get to speak to victims like Sabah Abu Halima, much less look into her eyes as she voiced her allegations. All their reports, bar the second Bronner piece on January 22nd, carried the Jerusalem dateline. Only when the IDF had evacuated could Ethan Bronner get into Gaza to speak to Palestinians.

That all sounds reasonable except for one thing. Like the NYT, The Times of London’s reports were all datelined Jersualem and for its detailed coverage of events on the ground in Gaza the paper seemingly relied on local stringers. And it managed to report in considerable detail both the use of WP and the devastating injuries being caused. So what about The New York Times? Did the paper have someone on the ground in Gaza and if so, why didn’t its coverage match its English counterpart?

Well yes, the paper did have someone on the ground in Gaza. Her name was Taghreed El-Khodary, a Palestinian journalist and she was the paper’s local correspondent, able to go places and speak to people inaccessible to Bronner and Kershner. On January 19th, 2009, she featured in a lengthy readers’ Q&A session reported in the Lede blog on the NYT website where she was asked about evidence that she had seen about the use of WP. She replied, inter alia: “I could find evidence of the use of white phosphorus bombs……As a result, we wrote about the use of the phosphorus. Israel used white phosphorus in densely populated areas.”

Taghreed El-Khodary

Ms El-Khodary may well have written about white phosphorous but if so, her reports about its use, the evidence she had found and her assertion that the weapon was used in “densely populated areas” never appeared in her paper, at least no edition available in any archive that I could search.

In all of this, it may entirely be a coincidence that the NYT’s Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner has what many would see as a major conflict of interest. He is married to an Israeli citizen and his son is a soldier in the Israeli army. Philip Weiss in his Mondoweiss blog reported on The New York Times response when Bronner’s background became known: “When it broke the news last year, Electronic Intifada said that it was a conflict of interest; and the newspaper’s public editor concurred; he said that Bronner should be reassigned to some other beat. The Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, has kept Bronner in Jerusalem, presumably hoping that the issue dies down and no one says anything about it.” (Taghreed El-Khodary resigned when the NYT refused to reassign Bronner and spoke of her “disappointment” at the paper’s decision). The NYT’s other Jerusalem-based correspondent Isabel Kershner is an Israeli citizen.

Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that such considerations would or could affect how a journalist covers a particular story or how a newspaper should regard his or her stories. But put it this way. If CJ Chivers was a Libyan citizen, or was married to one, and had a son who was fighting for the rebels in Benghazi and all this was known to the world, would The New York Times have been just as quick to publish his story about Gaddafi’s use of cluster bombs, just as confident that it could weather the inevitable controversy?

David Cameron Makes His Bones in Libya, NeoCon-style

Whenever a national leader justifies aggressive military action against others by invoking the phrase “humanitarian crisis” – as Barack Obama did to explain why a no-fly zone was being imposed on Libya – the most appropriate reaction may not be “to reach for my revolver”, to quote a long-forgotten German playwright, however tempting that might be. But stretching out a hand for a zinc bucket to hurl into sounds like a pretty good alternative.

No fly zone declared


This is not to deny that Libya does indeed face a potential calamity. The embattled Col. Gaddafi, his family, tribe and assorted associates and hangers-on are facing political, financial and possibly physical extinction at the hands of rebels – whose precise political orientation remains a mystery despite a heavy media presence in their strongholds – and clearly they will fight, and fight dirty, to make sure that does not happen.

But this is not the first time that an oppressive regime has threatened its own people, or other countries’ people, with slaughter and that fact serves to highlight the embedded dishonesty and hypocrisy of the joint Obama-Cameron-Sarkozy venture. If the prospect of a “humanitarian crisis” was an honest reason for military intervention then the three national leaders would be pretty much doing nothing else every day except issuing threats or organizing military sorties into other peoples’ countries.

They would be telling the leaders of Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, to lay off their pro-democracy protesters; they’d impose a no-fly zone over Zimbabwe or otherwise threaten to rein in Robert Mugabe, toss Cruise missiles at the Burmese military dictators and long ago have sent legions of the Green Berets, the SAS and the French Foreign Legion into Darfur.

But they didn’t, and they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing it. No more than they would have ordered a no-fly zone in the Middle East in December 2008 when Israel invaded Gaza during Operation Cast Lead and rained white phosphorous

Western silence when Israel rained white phosphorous on Gaza

down on the heads of Palestinian children with murderous consequences for scores. Not only did that not happen but the newly-elected Obama, vacationing in Hawaii at the time, could not be persuaded to utter even one word of condemnation or disapproval.

To be fair to the US president, however, this is one military adventure which the Americans appear to have been the most reluctant to join. The lead has been taken instead by French president, Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister, David Cameron who heads a coalition Tory-Liberal Democrat government in London. The two Europeans had been pressing for action against Gaddafi for more than a week before Obama, apparently also urged to travel down this road by Hillary Clinton, finally gave in.

Sarkozy’s reasons for joining this anti-Gaddafi expedition have, according to one persuasive account, much to do with the confluence of two uncomfortable realities and very little with the catastrophe that inaction could bring to the unfortunate Libyans.

One is the impending French presidential election, due next April or May, and the other is his awful standing in the opinion polls. The latest of these showed

Pandering to Le Pen's National front did Sarkozy little good

him trailing behind the Socialists and the quasi-fascist, anti-immigrant National Front founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. In a bid to fend off the challenge from the extreme right, Sarkozy last year decided to join Le Pen’s people in the gutter and ordered the expulsion of France’s Roma population.

Pandering to French xenophobia made little difference and now Sarkozy faces the real prospect of entering the history books as a one-term president. But as Margaret Thatcher discovered in the Falklands, as did George W Bush after the invasion of Iraq, nothing does quite as much good for a politician’s re-election prospects – particularly when you’re third in the polls – than a war, especially one your people believe you are leading.

For reasons that perhaps hark back to the days of “Freedom Fries” and the contrast that the sight of a French leader eager to fight a war alongside America

Sarkozy - no more "Freedom Fries"

makes, the US media have placed Sarkozy in the “no-fly zone” limelight. To be sure Sarkozy was the first to give official recognition to the Libyan rebels and French jets did fly the first missions over Benghazi but to focus on this risks missing one of the big stories of the Libyan adventure: the role of neocons in shaping British prime minister David Cameron’s enthusiastic support for the Libyan escapade.

And there is no doubting Cameron’s passion for this North African adventure. He was the first to call for a no-fly zone (as well as the arming of the rebels), in early March well ahead of Sarkozy who initially opposed the idea. Even when NATO turned him down and the Russians and Chinese promised to veto any attempt at the United Nations to dislodge the Libyan leader by force, he

David Cameron with 'neocon Rex' Tony Blair

persisted. When he ducked a question in the House of Commons over whether he would wait for a UN resolution on Libya before committing Britain to a no-fly zone it raised the intriguing possibility that Cameron might be ready to go down the same path traveled by Tony Blair in 2003 when he and Bush cut a secret deal to go to war in Iraq without the UN’s approval.

And Cameron’s ministers have let it slip that, notwithstanding that the terms of the UN resolution do not authorize regime change, getting rid of Gaddafi and even killing him is very high on the British agenda.

His Defence Secretary, Liam Fox let it slip that the Libyan dictator could be targeted by Cruise missiles while his Chancellor, (like Timothy Geithner but with much more clout) George Osborne refused to rule out British troops being deployed on Libyan soil to overthrow him, telling a British television show only

Dave and Barry share a joke - but does Obama really know about his friend's friends?

that it was not planned “at this stage”. Should there be any doubt what the real intentions are, it is worth remembering that it was a British submarine that targeted Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli with a missile strike shortly after the no-fly zone was authorised (the same compound, incidentally, bombed by Reagan in 1986 in a raid that killed Gaddafi’s adopted daughter).

So there seems reason to believe that in Cameron’s mind at least, the Libyan intervention is less a humanitarian intervention intended to relieve the hard-pressed rebels and avoid the slaughter of civilians and more a war whose aim is to overthrow the Gaddafi government and to achieve regime change.

David Cameron, like many British Tories, has some compelling reasons to get rid of Gaddafi although commercial motives such as access to Libyan oil and enhancing trade links are not among them. Cameron’s predecessor, Tony Blair long ago took care of Britain’s interests in that regard, secretly offering in 2005 to hand over Libyan dissidents hiding out in London (yes, the same ones whose friends in Libya the West is now so eager to protect) to Gaddafi and almost certain death (and later freeing the Lockerbie bomber) just at the time that Libyan oilfields were made available for public auction (by a remarkable coincidence by the time the hammer fell, BP and Shell had beaten out their US rivals and secured rights to all of Libya’s oil and natural gas resources).

Another reason could be Gaddafi’s nearly two decade-long sponsorship of the Provisional IRA. Over the years Libya gave the IRA many millions of dollars and tons of sophisticated weaponry, including ample supplies of the powerful explosive Semtex. By so doing the Libyan leader nourished a group that

Gaddafi gave the IRA weapons to use against Britain

otherwise would have posed a much less formidable threat to Britain. Getting payback for all those years spent helping out Irish terrorists who killed the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten and nearly wiped out the Thatcher Cabinet would certainly give Cameron and his colleagues much satisfaction but is insufficient by itself to explain the eagerness to attach Gaddafi’s scalp to their belt.

The clue to what is really going on in the Cameron cabinet can be found in the phrase that many believe describes their real but officially unstated aim: “regime change”. Consider these words to be published in the forthcoming issue of The Weekly Standard: “The only way this crisis will end – the only way we and our allies can achieve our objectives in Libya – is to remove Qaddafi from power. Containment won’t suffice. We must make ‘rollback’ the international strategy.”

British neocons want to do this to.........

....this guy

The Weekly Standard is, of course, the house magazine of the American neoconservative movement and the author of these words is the writer and think tanker, Max Boot. Although Boot dislikes the epithet, he is one of America’s foremost neocons. In fact there is hardly a neocon project of any significance in recent years that has not had Max Boot’s name attached to it at some stage or other, from the Project for a New American Century and the invasion of Iraq through to unquestioning fealty to Israel and particularly the Likud party.

And remember also that key defining document produced by American neoconservatism back in 1996, ‘Clean Break’, advice to Israeli’s incoming Likud premier, Benjamin  Netanyahu that a policy which embraced military force to topple unfriendly Arab regimes could ‘transcend’ the Arab-Israeli conflict, i.e. make an accommodation with Palestinians unnecessary. It is view heartily endorsed by the Atlanticists who populate the ranks of Britain’s neocons.

One of the most stubborn popular myths about neoconservatism is that it is a uniquely American phenomenon and given the baleful consequences that the doctrine had for the Bush White House, never mind the rest of the world, that is hardly surprising.

But neoconservatism’s roots do not belong in America and not even in the West Side of Manhattan, at least according to some in Cameron’s circle. The roots actually belong in Britain and, according to one of the doctrine’s leading

The Earl of Castlereagh - a founder of modern neoconservatism?

apostles, specifically in the British Tory party at the dawn of the nineteenth century when the doctrine of intervention in other countries’ affairs was legitimized, beginning with the effort to throw Napoleon off France’s imperial throne, and the basis laid for largely unopposed British colonial expansion during the rest of the century.

The claim, incidentally, is a necessary reminder that neoconservatism is just a fancy name for old-fashioned, interest-driven imperialism, justified in the nineteenth century in the name of bringing “civilization” to the rest of the world and nowadays to spread “democracy”.

Well, it looks as if Britain’s nineteenth century neocons have made a comeback and have a real, pivotal influence in Cameron’s Cabinet. The prime minister himself is not formally a neocon but he has surrounded himself with neocons,  given them key posts in government and has allowed his policies to be framed with significant input from neocon think tanks.

Consider the openly neocon members of Cameron’s Cabinet, nearly all of them members of the so-called Notting Hill set, a group of young ambitious Tories

Goerge Osborne as a young buck at Oxford - never had a proper job before politics

who spearheaded Cameron’s rise to the top of the Tory party. The leading figure is George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer whose economic policies will determine whether or not Cameron gets re-elected in 2014 or 2015. He is a crucial figure in Cameron’s government and has the prime minister’s ear every day. Back in 2003 when Bush and Blair were about to invade Iraq, Osborne – a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy – declared himself a “signed-up, card-carrying Bush fan” and told the House of Commons that he had been won over by the “excellent neoconservative case” for war.

The next most important figure is Cameron’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove who, when he is not advocating no fly zones in Libya, is busy constructing Britain’s version of charter schools. A former leader writer for the Times, Gove is the zealot who traces the origins of

Michael Gove - a key member of Cameron's 'Notting Hill set'

neoconservatism to a couple of early nineteenth century Tory Foreign Secretaries, George Canning and Robert Stewart, aka Viscount Castlereagh. An uncritical fan of Israel who barely bothers to disguise his contempt for all things Palestinian and Arab, Gove once compared Donald Rumsfeld to the sheriff played by Gary Cooper in High Noon.

More junior Tories make up the rest of Cameron’s neocon set. They include Greg Hands, George Osborne’s Private Parliamentary Secretary (PPS), the House of Commons’ version of a public school fag. Hands holds joint US and UK citizenship and returned to America in 2008 so he could vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey is also a neocon as is Nicholas Boles, PPS to the Schools Minister.

So two of Cameron’s most important Cabinet colleagues, and close personal friends, are declared neocons and a group of junior, talented and up and coming government figures are with them. Others in Cameron’s Cabinet are “liberal interventionists”, like the Foreign Secretary William Hague. A cynic might observe that “liberal interventionists” are to neocons what call girls are to hookers. They’re in the same business but one is more honest than the other about what they do.

The founder, nay inspiration of the liberal interventionists is Bush’s old pal, Tony Blair, about whom Michael Gove once wrote an article titled, would you believe, “I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony”. That was on the eve of the Iraq war. Guardian reporter Richard Seymour, whose insightful writing informs much of this post, once observed: “…for many Tories, Blair is neocon Rex.” So wherever he turns, Cameron is confronted by neocon influence or its surrogate, Blairism.

As with their American counterparts, many of these Cameronian neocons are leading figures in a bewildering array of overlapping Think Tanks and front groups and it is here that perhaps the greatest influence on Cameron can be seen.

Prime amongst these is Policy Exchange (PE), a conservative think tank based in Westminster which was founded by Michael Gove, now Cameron’s Education

Nicholas Boles, another Cameron ally and founder of Policy Exchange

Secretary, and Nicholas Boles who was until 2007 Policy Exchange’s Director and later Cameron’s head of policy. The Daily Telegraph, whose former editor Charles Moore is now PE’s chairman, called Policy Exchange “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right” while the New Statesman termed it David Cameron’s “favourite think tank”.

In the final years of Tony Blair’s premiership the Notting Hill set would meet at Policy Exchange’s offices to discuss the future of their party and out of that was born the idea that he should make a bid for the leadership. The measure of the think tank’s influence on Cameron and the regard with which he held it was on view in June 2005 when he chose a Policy Exchange event to launch his bid for the top job. When he succeeded, the think tank’s star rose along with him. Money flowed in from the City of London and with its income rising tenfold, Policy Exchange’s research staff grew by a factor of seven.

A key figure in Policy Exchange, and in shaping Cameron’s political direction during his premeirship, is its Research Director on security issues, Dean Godson, a former feature and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph and author of a celebrated if controversial biography of the Northern Ireland Unionist leader, David Trimble.*

Godson’s familial links to the neocon cause are impressive. His father Joseph, a Polish Jew who emigrated to America in 1926 at age 13, was a neoconservative before there were neoconservatives. A member of the American Communist Party he became disillusioned with Stalin at a very early stage and, skipping the Trotskyite phase, moved rightwards, joined the State department in 1950 and was stationed in London where he allegedly played a significant role meddling in the British Labour party’s internal politics much to the detriment of leftist figures like Nye Bevan, the father of British socialised medicine.

His other son Roy, based in Washington, is an expert in the shady business of counter intelligence/black propaganda and served on Reagan’s National Security Council where he helped Ollie North funnel Iranian cash to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Dean Godson’s two passions in life are Israel and Ireland, or to be more specific the cause of Likud and Ulster Unionism whose twin fates he saw threatened by the temptations of dialogue with untrustworthy terrorist adversaries, the PLO and the IRA, in the search for peace and political accommodation.

His friend David Frum, a Bush speechwriter famous, or infamous, for coining the phrase “axis of evil”, once wrote of the many anguished phone calls he would receive from Godson about the peace processes in Israel and Ireland during the 1990’s: “Dean kept pointing out….(that) they all shared a dangerous defect. They were attempts to make peace with terrorist adversaries who were not sincerely committed to peace”. (After the IRA called off its war and decommissioned its arsenals – thereby inconveniently demolishing Godson’s conspiracy theory – British neocons have instead turned to IRA dissidents as the next great threat, but less than convincingly)

Godson joined Policy Exchange when his benefactor Conrad Black lost control of the Daily Telegraph. The new editor, Martin Newland let Godson and Black’s wife and fellow writer, Barbara Amiel go because of their strident politics, as he later explained: “I soon came to recognise that (the Daily Telegraph was) speaking a language on geopolitical events and even domestic events that was dictated too much from across the Atlantic. It’s OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud, it’s OK to be pro-American but not look as if you’re taking instructions from Washington. Dean Godson and Barbara Amiel were key departures.” Conrad Black once called Palestinians “vile and primitive” while Barbara Amiel, in one of her pieces, compared Arabs to “animals”.

At Policy Exchange, Godson’s singular contribution has been, according to his many critics, to fan the flames of British Islamaphobia under the guise of confronting Muslim extremism and his methods have sometimes brought the think tank into unwelcome controversy.

In 2007 PE published ‘The Hijacking of British Islam’ which purported to show that extremist Muslim literature which, inter alia, advocated the stoning of adulterers and the beheading of apostates, was on sale in twenty-five per cent of British mosques. A BBC investigation revealed however that a number of receipts allegedly issued by mosques for the literature had been forged on PC’s or were written by the same hand.

Dean Godson (right) being grilled by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman over allegations of forgery in a Policy Exchange report on British Muslims

None of this seems to have deterred David Cameron however. In February this year he chose his first speech on terrorism as prime minister to announce the failure of British multiculturalism, echoing Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the need for a tougher stance on Muslim groups allegedly promoting extremism. Government contacts with and financial support for such groups would be re-examined and, if necessary, withheld, he declared. The speech was a feather in the cap for Dean Godson and Policy Exchange; it was also a notable triumph for the Tory party’s neoconservatives and clear evidence that Cameron was open to persuasion on other issues.

Key figures in Policy Exchange also populate the ranks of the Cambridge-based, British branch of the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), set up in the midst of the Iraq war and so-named after the fiercely pro-Israel, anti-Communist Senator from Washington State, the late Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a figure regarded as something between patron saint and founding father of the American neoconservative movement.

Signatories to the HJS’s statement of neocon principles include Cameron allies and Policy Exchange founders, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles as well as George Osborne’s “fag”, Greg Hands. Some of its researchers, like Martyn Frampton, have inherited Godson’s obsession with the dangers of talking to terrorists and Frampton has also been to the fore in projecting the tiny, heavily infiltrated and mostly corrupt IRA dissident groups as a new and major threat to peace in Ireland.

The corollary of such alarmism of course is the need for extra anti-terrorist resources, unceasing vigilance (not to mention paranoia) and, ultimately, the military strength to tackle not just the terrorists but those abroad who may sponsor and fund them, whether they be of the Irish or Muslim variety. While many British neocons have warmly welcomed David Cameron’s support for intervention in Libya they also express dismay at his unaltered plans to run down Britain’s military strength. Neoconservatism and the military state, like love and regret, go hand in hand.

The Henry Jackson Society has been anything but shy advocating the invasion of Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi. Type “Libya” into its website search bar and more than sixty articles and references appear, virtually all of them antagonistic to the Libyan leader or urging extreme action against him. One article written by HJS’s Global Security and Terrorism director George Grant and published recently in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal was headlined “Put the Mad Dog Down”.

As the situation in Libya deteriorated it set up an emergency “Committee for a Democratic Libya”, headed by the subject of Dean Godson’s autobiographical magnum opus, David, now Lord Trimble, the former NI Unionist leader who expressed himself in favour of supplying the rebels with military equipment and the services of unspecified “experts”. Libya, he told its inaugural meeting, “is the sort of situation where it would be utterly wrong for us to hang back”.

Activists in the Henry Jackson Society can also be found at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College London. Its publicly stated brief is to “educate the public in relation to diplomacy and strategy, public administration and policy, security and counter-terrorism and international conflict resolution.”

Its real function, fueling Islamaphobia, soon becomes apparent when you examine the biographies of just two of its research staff. One is an alleged Jihadist apostate called Shiraz Maher who doubles as a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He claims that he was once a member of the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir group but became disillusioned and quit. He now preaches a virulent anti-Islam gospel given credibility by his purported past history (the neocons’ Irish equivalent is Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA leader and admitted spy for the Irish police and the British intelligence service, MI5).

Former Islamist Shiraz Maher......

....and Sean O'Callaghan, an IRA informer. Both apostates, and useful to the neocon cause

During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Maher wrote that British Muslims have a choice: “…between Hamas, a terrorist group committed to destroying a sovereign state and its people – and Israel, the region’s only democracy which is responding to that threat.”

The other is Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Yes, you guessed it, the son of Christopher Hitchens, former Trot and post-9/11 convert in all but name to the neoconservative cause. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Also a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens - the apple fell not far from the tree

blogger for the Henry Jackson Society, Hitchens junior shares all of his father’s detestation of things Islamic and then some, as Strathclyde Sociology professor, David Miller observed in an August 2010 profile: “He has no truck with the idea that U.S., U.K., or Israeli foreign policy or human rights abuses contribute to terrorism. ‘It is the ideology of Islamism,’ he writes, ‘which is the primary root cause of jihadist terror.’ This puts him at odds even with the British intelligence agencies. Even they have acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq exacerbated opposition to the U.K.”

This then is the British neoconservative network that surrounds David Cameron. Iraq-style regime change is undeniably their goal with Muammar Gaddafi playing the role of Saddam Hussein. The Iraq invasion was based on the lie of weapons of mass-destruction (WMD) but it is the specter of a failed state that is being used by neocons to justify the action against Libya. As one of them wrote, the war between Gaddafi and his rebels could “create an Afghanistan on our doorstep….a source of terrorism and piracy”.

Perhaps, but there’s a large element of the self-fulfilling prophecy at the core of neoconservative thinking. It is worth remembering that Afghanistan became a failed state in the first place because of foreign intervention, first by the Russians and then the Americans. Had Afghanistan been left alone there would have been no Al Qaeda training camps, no 9/11. The Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq has likewise left the region more unstable than it was before, more susceptible to Iranian influence than could ever have been imagined in Sadam Hussein’s day.

Obama is going down a road these two men travelled before him

The debacle of Iraq had sounded, many thought, the death knell of neoconservatism but the Arab Spring and the Libyan crisis have revived it. That, and the neocon clique that surrounds David Cameron. US president Barack Obama now finds himself attached to a project that many would have more readily associated with his predecessor. He can only hope that his foray into Libya will have a happier ending than the Bush-Cheney expedition to Iraq. If not he will have, in no small way, his British ally to thank as well as that ally’s neocon friends. Remember what the man, no friend of the neocons, said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

*In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I know Dean Godson quite well and while our respective views of the world, and the Irish peace process, are poles apart, I like him and enjoy his company. I once spoke at a Policy Exchange debate on the NI peace process and found myself, gratifyingly I should add, in the minority. But he was, as always, a gracious and generous host.

Muammar and Me

بلدي مغامرة مثيرة في الشعبية الاشتراكية العظمى الجماهيرية العربية الليبية

(My Excellent Adventure in the Great Socialist Peoples’  Libyan Arab Jamahiriya)

The advert was tiny and it was tucked down by the Bunion cartoon, at the bottom of one of the back pages of the Belfast Telegraph, the ones usually filled with classified ads. ‘English Teachers required for University of Tripoli, Libyan Arab Republic’. it read. ‘Graduates with minimum two years experience at secondary level. Annual salary 5,000 Libyan dinars.’ A quick call to the foreign exchange department of the Ulster Bank: “What’s a Libyan dinar worth”, I asked. “Three pounds” came back the answer. Three pounds! You mean this job pays fifteen thousand pounds a year! So miracles can happen.

It was the summer of 1973 and life was miserable. Two years before I had graduated from Queen’s University in Belfast with a degree in Economics and Politics and little idea of what I was going to do with my life. Out of financial desperation I had drifted into teaching. It wasn’t something I wanted to do and I quickly discovered that I hated it. Since then my personal motto has always been: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. (Yes, I know that’s horribly unfair to teachers and as I’m married to one – a very good one, incidentally – I’m not allowed to forget how inaccurate and bigoted that statement is. Sorry, but it’s how I feel.) Anyway having become a teacher by default, I was determined to avoid teaching kids, something I knew I’d really, really hate, so I aimed at the tech college level where I thought the students, being older, would be more motivated, more fun to be with. They weren’t.

My first job was at Newtownards Tech College, teaching general studies to apprentice electricians, carpenters and bricklayers although with a surname like mine I’ll never know how I got it. This was Newtownards after all, east of Belfast and as Orange a town as could be found anywhere in the North. The nearest Catholic population of any size was miles away in Portaferry, perched at the end of the Ards peninsula as if they had been pushed there, out of sight, out of mind. If they had been edged any further away from Newtownards they’d have fallen into the sea. I don’t know why I was hired but my suspicion always was that the English accent confused the heck out of the selection panel.

My boss rejoiced in the name, Cecil Maquigg, an elder in his local Presbyterian kirk and a part-time RUC Reservist. The IRA was firing the first shots of its war when I started teaching there and Cecil was out every night, proudly walking the streets of Newtownards to protect it from the republican visigoths. An upright man, who rarely smiled, Cecil put the ‘d’ into dour and the ‘a’ into anally retentive. I am not sure he knew what to make of his newest recruit but he was polite if distant and left me to my own devices most of the time.

The students were a different matter though. It was in their DNA, an ability to sniff out a fenian (or an imagined one, as in my case) from 200 yards. No problem with the accent with these kids; if a guy has got a fenian name then he is one, end of story. If I say that on the Monday morning after Bloody Sunday, I walked into the first class of the day to discover ‘Thirteen – nil!’ chalked in large letters on the board, you’ll get a taste of what it was like to teach there. My next job, at Larne tech, was marginally worse. Bernadette McAliskey once coined the wonderful phrase, ‘Keeping his head lower than a Larne Taig’ to describe a friend who was trying avoid unwelcome attention. After a year in Larne, I knew exactly what she meant.

The two experiences were not entirely awful. I met some nice people, all Protestants, and gained a valuable insight into that community, one that would serve me well when I began life as a journalist. What really made life so wretched was poverty. When I finished at Queen’s I owed £2,000 in bank loans, an enormous sum in those days. This was 1973 don’t forget and to put that into context a teacher at my level earned an annual salary of about £1,100 a year. So I owed nearly two years pay and it looked as if it would take years to clear the debt, scrimping and scraping in the meantime to keep body and soul attached.

The little advert down by the Bunion advert was therefore a potential life-saver. I could pay off all my debts in a few months and by the end of a year I’d have a little nest egg. If I could get two years out of it, life would be changed beyond recognition. So I wrote off for an application, filled it in and a few days later was summoned to a semi-detached house off the Cregagh Road in east Belfast for an interview with a curious Englishman called Dennis Philcox.

I use the word interview but that’s a generous word to describe what happened. Dennis, a voluble, balding man in his early middle age who sprayed more than spoke sentences, was married to a little mouse of a woman from Iceland called Helga who rarely, if ever, opened her mouth. It soon became clear that the only thing on Dennis’ mind was filling his quota of recruits and as long as you had the bare requirements there’d be a job for you. (I later learned that he and a partner already on site in Tripoli were on a finders’ fee for the University, so the more they hired, the more they got paid). He told me that he’d spent his life in ‘teffel’, as he called it, hoped I’d enjoy it too and wondered how quickly I could quit my job and get over to Tripoli. ‘Teffel?’ I asked, a little stunned at the speed of events and not exactly sure what I was getting into. ‘Yes, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, T-E-F-L’, he explained. “Well, I’d have to give a month’s notice. That’s in my contract”. “Great”, he replied, “welcome aboard”. That was it. I was on my way to Libya.

This was my entree to the world of TEFL, and to the community of people who spent their lives traveling from one Arab country to another teaching English to schoolchildren, college kids, oil executives, army officers, the wives of rich businessmen and so on. They’d typically spend two or three years in Saudi before moving to Kuwait or Dubai or Bahrain and so on. Mostly they were single, addicted to the itinerant life and entranced by the Arab world. Oil-rich Libya had been on the circuit for a couple of decades but since the revolution led by a young Colonel called Muammar Gaddafi old certitudes had been shattered.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Tripoli that I began asking the obvious questions. What on earth was the University of Tripoli doing hiring teachers via display ads down by the Bunion cartoon in the Belfast Telegraph? And how come I had got a job, and a lavishly well-paid one to boot, for which I was not even remotely qualified; after all I hadn’t even heard of TEFL until I met Dennis Philcox much less know how to do it.

The answers to those question lay in the complex history and politics of Libya and to the fact that the young Colonel Gaddafi had upended all those comfortable certainties which in the past had ensured that Belfast would be the last place on earth where Libya would seek its English teachers. These events had already interacted with the lives of the two dozen or so teachers hired  by Dennis Philcox and they would interact in a wider and more far-reaching way with the politics and history of Ireland for the next several decades.

Ireland and Libya had one thing in common and that was an unhappy history as someone else’s colony and while Libya’s experience was every bit as miserable as Ireland’s, Libya could justifiably claim that hers was much, much longer. Libya was first occupied by the Roman Empire in 167 BC and ever since then one foreign power or another had taken the place over to enrich and empower themselves. After the Romans came the Moslems, then the Turks followed by the Italians who at first ruled via a local puppet monarchy, the Idris family, until Mussolini appeared on the scene, dispensed with the Idris clan and after a guerrilla war against Libyan partisans which cost many tens of thousands of Arab lives (a story captured in the movie, Lion of the Desert starring Anthony Quinn), absorbed Libya fully into Italy.

What attracted these early foreign interlopers to Libya was its coastal strip. The soil is rich and the Mediterranean climate balmy for ten months of the year. The combination made the Libyan coastal strip Rome’s bread basket and so enriched

The ampitheatre at Leptis Magna, a Roman city west of Tripoli

Roman merchants that they were able to build two large cities on either side of what is now Tripoli (the ruins are spectacular by the way). The Turks came for the same reason, as well as the strategic advantage afforded by Libya’s geography, and so did the Italians, who shipped over thousands of farmers who, in shades of Ireland’s Plantation, stole land away from the locals to turn into vast olive farms.

The Italians were of course ejected after the Second World War and the victorious powers, America, Britain and France divided the country up into spheres of influence and installed the Idris family back onto the throne. The American sphere was in the west, around Tripoli where a huge airbase, Wheelus, was built. The French took the south, mostly scrabble hard desert but strategically important since it abutted on the French colonies of Chad and Niger, while the British took the east, around Benghazi and the scene of Montgomery’s victory at Tobruk over Rommel, conveniently close to Egypt and the Suez canal, which Britain was determined to hold.

The British used the adjoining desert as a military training ground. Veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland will remember that after Operation Motorman in 1972 the British imported a fleet of Saladin and Saracen armoured cars to ferry their troops around the streets of Belfast and Derry. The vehicles stood out because instead of a dull shade of khaki like other British vehicles, these had been painted a bright sand yellow and the reason for that was that they had come directly from these training grounds around Benghazi.

By this time oil had been discovered in Libya. Not just any old oil but stuff that was so pure that it was said that it could be poured straight from the ground into a motor car’s engine. That meant it needed very little refining and was more than ordinarily profitable for oil companies. So Libya’s abundantly fertile coastal strip was replaced by oil as the motive for foreign interference and for the best part of a quarter century the post-war settlement prospered: the Idris family ran the place and cut deals with oil companies that enriched them both while the British, Americans and French supplied the Libyan elite with its needs and exercised huge cultural and political influence over the country. The Libyan masses though were left mostly untouched by this enormous natural bounty, as they had since the days of the Roman Empire. (Question: What did the Romans ever do for the Libyans? Answer: Nothing) By 1958, the United Nations calculated that Libya was the third poorest country in the world.

And then along came Gamal Abdel Nasser. Along with officer colleagues in the Egyptian army, Nasser overthrew the pro-British monarch King Farouk in 1952 and in 1956, on a platform of pan-Arab solidarity, social and economic reform and opposition to foreign interference in the region, he was elected President of Egypt. That year Nasser electrified the Arab world when he nationalised the Suez Canal, edging its two largest shareholders, Britain and France into a conspiracy with Israel to invade Egypt and recapture the Canal. The adventure failed, thanks largely to American disapproval (a stand that nowadays seems like it could have happened on another planet) while the debacle of Suez marked the final and undeniable sunset of the British empire. The Suez Canal had long symbolised Western interference in, and domination of the Arab world and Nasser’s move made him an Arab hero and a role model for a young Libyan army officer called Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s revolution was modeled entirely on Nasser’s and in many ways was a facsimile. Gaddafi overthrew a pro-Western puppet monarch, just as Nasser had, and he and his fellow revolutionaries shared Nasser’s enthusiasm for radical

A young Muammar Gaddafi with his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

social and economic reform. They were also pan-Arabists and Gaddafi’s Libya applied almost immediately for membership of Nasser’s United Arab Republic, the ill-fated union of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They were also determined to get pay back from the European powers who had colonised or exploited Libya for so long – and that’s where Dennis Philcox and his ad in the Belfast Telegraph enters the story.

Gaddafi and his co-revolutionaries made expulsion of Western oil companies and their governments a major and early priority. By 1973, BP and other foreign companies had been nationalised and oil production was firmly in the hands of the Libyans. The Americans had been forced to close the airbase at Wheelus (in 1974 you could still climb into the cockpits of abandoned American jets lying scattered around the base), the French had been chased out of the south and the British had emptied their military bases and training grounds around Benghazi.

Through the British Council, the British had also supplied the bulk of Libya’s English teachers but in 1972 Gaddafi cancelled their contract. The British Council was an arm of the Foreign Office, and regarded by the Libyans in the same light as the British Army, but it had long been viewed in the Arab world, and elsewhere, as a convenient cover for spies and that was another reason for kicking them out. (The notion that the British used teachers as spies was not, as I learned, that far-fetched. One non-British Council teacher in the agricultural department at the university one night confessed to me in his cups that MI6 had asked to see him during his vacation breaks so that he could be debriefed on a huge Gaddafi-inspired project to irrigate and farm part of the eastern desert. He agreed to help them.)

So that’s why Dennis Philcox was running around recruiting teachers for Libya

Gaddafi and fellow revolutionaries determined to rid Libya of Western influence

although it didn’t quite explain why he had come to Belfast of all places to do so. Strictly speaking Belfast should have been last on his list. The Belfast accent is about as far away from RP, as the TEFL pros call it, as you could get. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, or, if you prefer, a BBC accent and the idea that young Arabs were being taught English by people with such coarse, incomprehensible enunciation horrified and outraged those few British Council leftovers still working out the remnants of their contracts when we arrived in Tripoli.

No, the reason Dennis had set up a base in Belfast had more to do with Nasser, the Suez Canal and Gaddafi’s desire to tweak the noses of the old imperial powers, especially the Brits, than it had with any teaching skills or fluency in English. Dennis had come to Belfast, unwittingly or otherwise, I do not know, to provide camouflage for the Libyans so that they could install an agent of the Provisional IRA in Tripoli, an ambassador if you prefer because that is how he was treated, to liaise with them over weapons and financial assistance for the IRA’s war in the North. That agent wasn’t in our particular group but he was one of dozens of Irish teachers recruited, North and South, at that time, so many that one would not stand out and therefore would less likely come to the attention of MI6 or other agencies that kept a wary eye on Gaddafi’s dealings.

I have written extensively elsewhere about that liaison between the IRA and Gaddafi, how the agent, a small, elf-like man from a town in Co. Monaghan who was known to the Libyans as ‘Mister Eddie’, would teach English to the children of Libyan Army officers by day but at night retire to his villa in Tripoli’s embassy district where he would dine off exquisitely embossed plates confiscated from King Idris’ palace and discuss the war in Ireland with his contact from Libyan intelligence.

IRA man fires a rifle supplied by Gaddafi

I have also written about the last dramatic chapter in that liaison which culminated in the capture of the gun-running ship, the Eksund in 1987 and how that event transformed the IRA’s fortunes, closing off for good any lingering hopes of military victory, but planting the suspicion of high-level betrayal and the seeds of a bitter split in the IRA while accelerating the infant peace process. This is not the place to rehearse all that history but to make a broader point about the Gaddafi-IRA relationship.

The striking aspect of their association is the extent to which the stories of the Provos and Muammar Gaddafi have run on parallel tracks, more or less, throughout the years of their existence, beginning with their genesis. They started out in life at more or less at the same time: Gaddafi’s revolution happened on September 1st, 1969 while the Provos effectively came into being a fortnight earlier, on August 15th, 1969 when the inability of the disarmed/unarmed IRA to defend Catholic homes from Loyalist petrol bombs inspired a revolt and split in the ranks. Gaddafi threw off the yoke of a monarch he regarded as a puppet of the West while the Provos rejected a leadership seen as being just as out of touch with the needs of their people.

They both then shared years of commitment to revolution and a conviction that only violence and armed struggle could achieve their aims, Gaddafi through funding and arming anti-imperialist insurrections throughout Europe and Africa and the Provos by bombing and shooting, by killing and destroying.

Both then shared an existence marked by failure, isolation and near defeat followed by re-assessment and a rejection of their old ways. Gaddafi’s volte-face came about thanks to international sanctions imposed in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents and culminated in two highly symbolic acts, both designed to signal a radical change in direction. Only one is really known about. That was Gaddafi’s surrender in 2004 to George W Bush’s demand that he dismantle his ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as overt a genuflection towards Washington as it was possible to make.

The other act, which happened years before, is less well known. When the IRA

Semtex explosive - Gaddafi's gift to the IRA

made the arrangements for the arms shipments of the 1980’s, Joe Cahill, who had been chief of staff when the relationship with Gaddafi began, accepted a Libyan insistence that the real identities of the IRA personnel involved in the operation, from leaders like ‘Slab’ Murphy and Micky McKevitt through to the foot soldiers who had been sent to Libya to train in the weaponry, be recorded by the Libyans. Each man was obliged to fill out a form detailing exactly who they were which was then handed over to Libyan intelligence. When Gaddafi began to repair relations with Britain in the early to mid 1990’s he handed over those details to MI6 as a sign of his bona fides along with the manifest of weapons shipped from his armories, a concession that facilitated the demand during the peace process that the IRA decommission its weapons. Muammar did the dirt on his old mates, in other words, to save his skin.

The Provos faced defeat and isolation at a much earlier stage than Gaddafi and while it was the 1981 hunger strikes and the subsequent foray into electoral politics that stimulated, at least amongst the leadership around Gerry Adams, a re-assessment and eventual renunciation of armed struggle and their old ways, both they and Gaddafi ended up in the same place, as friends and allies of those they had hitherto spent their lives and expending their energies trying to destroy.

Consider some of the links Gaddafi is said to have forged in recent years. According to the Washington-based Politico website, the grand-daddy of the neocon hawks, Richard Perle, aka ‘the Dark Prince’ and one of those who agitated behind the scenes for the invasion of Iraq, became a Gaddafi adviser and frequent visitor to his desert tent beginning in 2006. Perle was working on behalf of the Boston-based consultancy firm, Monitor and debriefed VP Dick Cheney on his chats with the Libyan leader. Also recruited by Monitor as Gaddafi confidantes were the ‘end of history’ neocon icon, Francis Fukuyama and arch neocon, Bernard Lewis, said by some to be the single most persuasive influence on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. By their friends shall ye know them.

Gaddafi - the former revolutionary, ravaged by forty years of power and corruption, counted US neocons amongst his confidantes at the end of his reign.

Last June, Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi revealed the identity of another intriguing recruit to his father’s stable of advisers, telling The Daily Mail that Tony Blair had become ‘a personal family friend’ of the Libyan leader and that the two men were now on first name terms. Saif said that Blair, who is also an advisor to the Wall Street bankers J P Morgan and reportedly within sight of acquiring a personal fortune of some £20 million, had become a consultant to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund which has assets of around $65 billion and had visited the country ‘many, many times’ since quitting as prime minister. Their relationship prospered, he said, when Blair negotiated the release of the Lockerbie bomber in return for a lucrative oil contract awarded to BP.

Tony and Muammar

Blair denied the Mail story but Saif Gaddafi was adamant: ‘Tony Blair has an excellent relationship with my father”, he insisted. “For us, he is a personal family friend. I first met him around four years ago at Number 10. Since then I’ve met him several times in Libya where he stays with my father…….He’s an adviser to the LIA, the Libyan Investment Authority. He has some consultancy role.’

The facts are much less clear cut when it comes to the relationship between Gerry Adams and Tony Blair but given revelations from Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell that he and his prime minister helped draft IRA statements at key moments during the decade-long peace process, and that Blair’s strategy of boosting Sinn Fein with concessions during negotiations, no matter the collateral damage done to the Unionist leader David Trimble or Sinn Fein’s Nationalist rivals, John Hume’s

Tony and Gerry

SDLP, helped make it the dominant Nationalist party in the North, questions about the ties between them – was Blair an adviser or just a helper? – will be debated long after both men are dead. It could hardly be otherwise. You could say that Tony Blair destroyed the centre ground of NI politics in his quest to boost the Sinn Fein leader and you can’t get more buddy-buddy than that.

Whatever the truth there’s no doubt that in the case of Gerry Adams – and with Gaddafi until recently – their respective political turnarounds brought respectability, success and a new sense of security – as well as a new and surprising set of friends.

The fortunes and life stories of the Provos and Gaddafi may have travelled on parallel tracks for most of the past forty years but no longer, or so it seems. As I write this, Gaddafi faces extinction in Libya while, thanks to those pesky bankers, Adams is enjoying something of a revival in fortunes with a good result in the recent Irish general election. Will their paths now diverge? Who knows, but bear in mind what Chou En-Lai once said about the lessons learned from the French revolution – it’s far too early to tell.

As for me I had a ball in Libya. I spent two years there teaching in the language laboratory (the accent again doing me a favour) and I met some great Arab students, none more memorable than Juhanah, a Palestinian girl with perfect English whose family had twice been driven from their homes by Israelis, in 1948 from their farm near what became Tel Aviv and in 1967 from their home in West Jerusalem. Her father, a Cambridge educated philologist and as sophisticated a man as you could meet on a long day’s walk, had been obliged to take a low ranking job in a Libyan ministry to keep his family fed and clothed, taking orders from bullying oafs.

I lived in a villa on a farm cum fruit orchard that had once been owned by Italian colons but was now back in Libyan hands that was within driving distance of

Happy Days!

empty, silvery Mediterranean beaches where many an afternoon was spent snorkeling, swimming and sunning. These were the early years of Gaddafi’s revolution. No wall-sized portraits of the dear leader stared down at you from street corners and the oil money went where it should, to the building of new apartment blocks, schools and hospitals and the wallets of ordinary Libyans.

Life was good. Booze flowed like oil from the desert wells (the Libyans turned a blind eye as the European and American expats brewed home-made beer or distilled ‘Flash’ with skills honed in the Glens of Antrim or the woods of Kentucky) while government subsidies on food meant that at night, as the cicadas sang their entrancing song, we barbecued whole sirloins or fillets of beef bought at the same price as stewing meat and feasted like kings. We were young, we were single and, for the first time in our lives, we had money in our pockets. I paid off all my debt, came home with enough money to buy a house and the energy and drive to make teaching a thing of the past.

I will always have a great affection for Libya but I hope Muammar goes to where all the hypocrites and tyrants should go. If he does, I’m sure he won’t want for company. And if he waits long enough he just might be joined by some old friends.