Politics - John Kampfner finds diplomacy is back in fashion

A brief era of history is over. Diplomacy, compromise and moral relativism are back in fashion. That

Tony Blair welcomes Libya's foreign minister to Downing Street. Prince Charles goes to Tehran for talks with Iran's president. Two huge bombs go off in and around Baghdad, killing up to a hundred people. Compare and contrast: the old-fashioned policy of "constructive engagement" with states we called rogues and the strategic and security disaster that is Iraq.

Diplomacy, the practice of compromise and moral relativism, is back in fashion. The new world order proclaimed after 9/11, the pre-emptive security doctrine fashioned by George W Bush and endorsed by Blair, is fading away. The dual threat of international terrorism and failed states might be as acute as ever, but a weakened president and a weakened prime minister have been forced to retreat to more traditional methods of engaging with awkward foreigners.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the "mad dog of the Middle East" according to Ronald Reagan, will soon host Blair in his desert tent. The British, I am told, would like the visit to take place by June. Both countries have a vested interest in emphasising Libya's decision to divest itself of its weapons of mass destruction. During his recent visit to London, Libya's foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, maintained that his country did have the scientists, the substances and the know-how to develop a nuclear bomb, but had "volunteered" to stop. "If you have flour, water and fire, you do not necessarily make bread," he declared.

The assessment of the UN atomic energy agency, the IAEA, was different. Libya, it said, was still "some years away". Since their deal on 19 December, the British, the Americans and the Libyans have talked up the scale and imminence of Libya's nuclear programme. For Gaddafi, face was saved and a route was opened back into the fold. Bush and Blair needed visible results for their "tough stand" against WMDs.

One officially promulgated myth about Iraq is that the danger posed by nuclear, chemical and biological proliferation was something new. As with human rights, as with WMDs, the Americans and British have long exercised discretion - or double standards. India and Pakistan were gently admonished for going nuclear (while being sold copious conventional weapons by the UK in particular). Israel has never been challenged. North Korea's programme is too far down the line to be stopped by anything but negotiation. Realpolitik has been at work throughout.

That was very much in evidence when the west failed to condemn the decision by the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, to pardon the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb for leaking weapons secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. The IAEA believes the actions of Abdul Qadeer Khan are the "tip of the iceberg". The CIA said he was profiteering on four continents, but neither Blair nor Bush has complained about Musharraf's lenience. The reason is simple: the man who came to power in a coup and was once denounced by our government then became our friend in the "war on terror".

Prior to the debacle of Iraq, Blair showed considerable flexibility in dealing with difficult Middle Eastern states. It was he, or rather it was Robin Cook as foreign secretary, who re-established relations with Libya after it handed over the two Lockerbie suspects and accepted "general responsibility" for the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher during the Libyan embassy siege of 1984. It was Blair who pressed to improve ties with Iran in 2001 and 2002. It was Blair who tried to engage with Syria's new leader, Bashar al-Assad, in October 2001.

Now Blair wants others to embrace another new-found ally. The Bush administration is under pressure from US oil corporations to drop the ban on American companies operating in Libya. There are also lucrative privatisation contracts to be won. Blair wants the EU to lift its ban on arms sales to Libya. Within the EU the strongest resistance to a rapprochement comes from Germany, which, unlike Britain and France after Lockerbie and the UTA airline bombing, has still not agreed compensation terms with the Libyans over the 1986 attack on a Berlin nightclub. The man we called the world's worst sponsor of international terrorism in the 1980s, Colonel Gaddafi, is now our friend. The man who was our friend in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, became our implacable enemy. The leader who was developing a nuclear programme is still in power. The one who was not is not.

At a recent conference on Iran, the US under-secretary and hawk-in-residence at the State Department, John Bolton, denounced the Europeans for engaging with the axis of evil. "I don't do carrots," he said. Behind the bombast, however, there is nowhere now for the Americans and the British to go. Blair has already rediscovered his fondness for diplomats' favourite vegetable.

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