Was the Lockerbie Release Bad Business or Good Diplomacy?

Outrage was the uniform American response to Scotland's release last week of Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of blowing Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie in December, 1988. Two hundred and seventy innocent people died in that act of terrorism, of whom 189 were Americans, many of them students on their way home to celebrate Christmas with their families.

Outrage also greeted the public celebration of Megrahi's arrival in Libya and his warm reception from Muammar Gaddafi. These manifestations of insensitivity only highlight the shamefulness of Britain's fundamental mistake in letting Megrahi go free, regardless of his condition. "Compassion" has no place here. Releasing him to die at home means that he has spent less than two weeks in jail for each of his 270 victims. They never made it home.

The justifiable disgust over Megrahi's release sadly underlines what amounts to a spectacular failure of American diplomacy. "Obamamania" overseas is a dominant theme of the media, endlessly recounting how the US position in the world has improved since President Bush's departure. "Engagement" with friend and adversary alike is the Obama administration's hallmark, with diplomatic advances expected to flow like wine.

This is effective US diplomacy? This is one of the tangible benefits of Obamamania?

So what happened? The state department said on Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked "for weeks and months" to persuade Britain not to release the murderer. Both Washington and London all but begged Gaddafi not to hold public celebrations on Megrahi's arrival in Tripoli. Yet Britain, the other half of the "special relationship", ignored Clinton's efforts, as did Libya, which only recently resumed full diplomatic relations with America.

This is effective US diplomacy? This is one of the tangible benefits of Obamamania? The purported "decision" by Scotland (under whose laws America, Britain and Libya agreed Megrahi would be tried) was almost surely taken at the behest of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Government. Even worse, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, and Lord Trefgarne, president of the Libyan-British Business Council, have both essentially confirmed that Megrahi's release was intended to facilitate enhanced commercial relationships between Britain and Libya. Gaddafi said the release "will be positively reflected for sure in all areas of co-operation between the two countries". Is there any doubt of his meaning?

Cabinet protestations to the contrary are increasingly hollow, as inconvenient new evidence, such as Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis's letter to Scotland's justice secretary, demonstrates. For sure, there was no "deal" between Brown and Gaddafi or their underlings, no signed contract, no express quid pro quo between Megrahi's release and business for Britain. In reality, of course, that is not the way it's done. All denials of such an explicit transaction are probably "the truth", but not the whole truth. Sequencing the release and the subsequent contracts was designed to enhance official deniability, but the linkage is palpable to all concerned.

Expert Cabinet spin cannot hide the emerging reality. Some say Brown listened to those British victims' families who still doubt Megrahi's guilt. Why does he have so little faith in Scottish justice? And if Scotland (birthplace of two of my grandparents) can't get mass terrorism right, what does that tell foreigners thinking about visiting?

In fact, this is merely the latest example of a fundamentally flawed American approach to international terrorism, begun in the Clinton administration. Although rejected by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Clinton philosophy that terrorism was simply a law-enforcement matter is again in vogue in full force under President Obama. Both the first President Bush and President Clinton should have treated the destruction of Pan Am 103 as an attack on the US and responded accordingly. This mass murder was not simply a bank robbery writ large; it was an act of state aggression almost surely directed by Libya's government, then, as now, in Gaddafi's hands.

At the barest minimum, the Clinton administration should never have agreed that Megrahi could be tried in Scotland, which does not provide the death penalty for murder, or even for mass terrorism or any other crime. In America, after a trial at least as fair as Scotland's, and appeals exhausted, Megrahi would not now be in a position to ask for clemency. Nor should the US and the UK have agreed that Megrahi's trial would "not be used to undermine the Libyan regime", in the language of the UN letter that facilitated Megrahi's transfer to Scottish custody 10 years ago. His release will be widely seen, especially by terrorists and their state sponsors, as one more act of Western appeasement. Gaddafi will wonder again why, five years ago, he gave up his nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.

Next month in New York President Obama will preside over a UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation. All of the council's 15 heads of government are expected to attend, including Brown and Gaddafi. Perhaps the three of them will pose together for the cameras. It should be a very cosy scene, but with no Obamamania.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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