Thanks to the WSJ, we can search the ever-growing database of Hillary Clinton emails. Here is the one from Feb 2011 where news of Tony Blair’s discussion with Gaddafi is described, as the doomed dictator (Gaddafi, not Blair or Hillary) wriggled to survive.

If you have a safe place to go then you should go there, because this will not end peacefully unless that happens and there has to be a process of change. That process of change can be managed and we have to find a way of managing it

I have talked to people and everyone wants a peaceful end to this. You’ve got to try to do something to allow this process to happen peacefully. The only way of doing that is say to people that you are going to engage in a process of change, that you are telling your forces not to use violence against people and that this will now be managed peacefully and properly, you need to be in a position where Libya is prepared to do this peacefully.

The US and the EU are in a tough position right now and I need to take something back to them which ensures this ends peacefully. If people saw the leader standing aside they would be content with that. f this goes on for another day/two days we will go past the point. I’m saying this because I believe it deeply. If we can’t get a way through/out very quickly this will go past the point of no return

Horror! Wicked Blair trying to save Gaddafi’s skin! Boo. Hiss.

Except, of course, that he was doing the smartest thing possible.

Recall that not long after 9/11 Col Gaddafi made a very smart move – he signalled to MI6 that he was prepared to renounce his elaborate programme of weapons of mass destruction. The negotiations on how this would be announced and followed up were very delicate but brilliantly done, to the point of taking place at the Travellers Club in London. But the deal was done, and Gaddafi improbably emerged as something like a normal leader. He was welcomed as such by the then UK Prime Minister and other EU leaders. Their aim was sound and well-tested: by normalising relations with Gaddafi and expanding business with Libya, the incentives for Gaddafi to cooperate and not play stupid games would diminish sharply.


In return for surrendering the WMD programme, Gaddafi demanded something significant by way of respectability. And that’s what he got.

Western leaders – yes, including Tony Blair – started to treat the Gaddafi elite as if they were more or less reasonable partners. Trade and investment accelerated. British support was given to help train the Libyan armed forces and intelligence services in better practices. For their own cynical reasons the Libyan leadership started to cooperate with us against Al Qaeda.

The key thing to understand in all this is that there are only two basic choices available to democracies when it comes to dealing with odious regimes: Isolation, or Engagement. And that both can have perverse consequences, because it is impossible to deal with perverse regimes without some perverse outcomes.

Isolation (plus or minus sanctions) invariably drags on unhappily, mainly because the regimes are never in fact that isolated: see the wild success of those policies for eg Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Belarus. In some cases the regime may isolate itself, all the better to oppress its own citizens: see decades of North Korea.

Engagement creates different problems. Above all, if you engage with dirty people, how to avoid some of their dirt ending up on you? The promise of Engagement is that it offers the hope of slowly but surely changing things for the better; the danger is that while you are doing that, the key leaders of the regime in fact get far richer and learn how to be oppressive in new, cleverer ways …

There is no good policy answer to this.

These regimes by definition are good and ruthless at controlling their domestic space. Engagement necessarily takes place in large measure on the regime’s own terms.

The hope for us is that Engagement creates a form of ‘creative dissonance’, where one positive change leads to another, and another. Greater foreign investment brings with it higher accounting standards and greater transparency. Training government officials demonstrates completely different ways of dealing with people.

Seeds get planted in the barren local political and psychological soil. Some fail. But some grow.

In short, the Blair/Brown government and then the Cameron-led government all did exactly the right thing to engage closely and determinedly with the Gaddafi regime after the WMD issue was resolved. This policy has been warmly encouraged by Nelson Mandela, who always had a soft spot for Gaddafi

It turned out that Gaddafi could be made more respectable. But he could not be made less vain or stupid. When the Arab Spring started he misread the situation and started to hit back ruthlessly. This is why Tony Blair telephoned him: to draw on the personal relationship they had built up to try to persuade him that the time had come for Gaddafi to step down, and that if he agreed to do this the world would help him make a dignified (and safe) exit.

Imagine if Blair’s words had worked, and Gaddafi had asked the EU to help negotiate a new constitutional settlement for Libya! That process would have dragged on for years. He might still be Libya’s leader. And Libya would not have slumped into chaos. Assad might have watched this unfold and handled his Arab Spring opponents completely differently. ISIL might not have been launched. The mind boggles at the positive possibilities.

This is just part of a wider drama of Bad Leaders. It’s unseemly to appear to reward them by helping them step down nicely after years of brutalising their own people. But the alternative is that they see no way out, so they stay on and smash up their country in the process.

The Hillary email here shows how global diplomacy at its best in fact works: top people trying their best to fix things, and briefing each other privately on how they are getting on.

Which, of course, makes it all the more absurd (and probably illegal) that H Clinton was using an ill-protected private email arrangement as US Secretary of State for following everything that was going on.