Friends in Embarrassing Places

Saif Qaddafi’s connections with the British establishment are typical of the links between wealthy dictators and Western politicians.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libyan protests.

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi

Every British newspaper worth its salt has written about Saif al-Islam Qaddafi this week, but the Sunday Times had by far the best graphic illustration. A photograph of Col. Qaddafi’s second son—clad in a white jacket and tasteful silk tie, with a carefully pressed kaffiyeh draped elegantly over his shoulders—occupies the center of a large box.

Photographs of his British friends and business partners cluster in a circle around him: Nat Rothschild, scion of the banking family, who gave a party for Saif when he completed his doctorate on “civil society” and “global governance” at the London School of Economics; Sir Howard Davies, director of the LSE and one of Tony Blair’s economic envoys to Libya; Lord Peter Mandelson, a former Blair adviser, Cabinet minister, and European commissioner, who now advises “companies hoping to expand markets overseas”; Prince Andrew, who promotes British trade abroad; and, last but not least, Blair himself.

Saif was popular. He went to parties in St. James’s Palace and sailed in yachts off Corfu. He was also rich. Thanks to his contacts, he became the conduit through which British companies invested in Libya—and through which the Libyan Investment Authority invested in British companies. At least that was what he was doing until last week, when he appeared on Libyan television vowing that his father’s bloody regime would fight “to the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.” Suddenly, the acceptable face of Libyan tyranny became unacceptable. Underneath that Western-educated veneer, it seems there had lurked a ranting psychopath.

Saif was not the only dubious character to inhabit the space where money meets politics in London, the city that has become the true capital of global capitalism. Any list of, say, people with whom Prince Andrew has recently dined will reveal dozens of similarly polished thugs: more Libyans, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and of course the ubiquitous Saudis.

Money, even foreign money (and particularly that Saudi money), has always been able to buy access to Western statesmen. But in the last decade or so, the proportions have subtly shifted. The democratic West has become relatively poorer, while a clutch of undemocratic “emerging” markets have become richer. To put it more bluntly, Western politicians, ex-politicians, and even aristocrats have become much, much poorer than the very, very rich businessmen emerging from the oil-and-gas states of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Twenty years ago, no retired British or German statesman would have looked outside his country for employment. Nowadays, Blair advises the governments of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, among others; Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, collects a paycheck from Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth.

True, there is a legitimate argument for maintaining contacts with dictators: Blair helped persuade Col. Qaddafi to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, and in the last 10 days he has twice called the dictator and asked him to stop shooting his people. It hasn’t helped, of course, but it can’t hurt to try.

But there is no justification for taking dictators’ money or befriending their offspring, especially not while simultaneously playing politics with their parents. This is not just a British problem, either. Frank Wisner, the U.S. envoy sent by President Barack Obama to negotiate with Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the Egyptian revolution, also works for Patton Boggs, a law firm that has worked for the Egyptian government. The administration was reportedly angry when he unexpectedly opined that Mubarak “must stay” just a few days before Mubarak fled Cairo. But should anyone have been surprised? Meanwhile, Michèle * Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, has just lost her job because she went on holiday in Tunisia during the revolution, hitched a few rides on a private plane belonging to a friend of the Tunisian president, and helped her father do a business deal there. When she got back, she tactfully suggested that the French help their friends in the Tunisian police put down the riots.

Fingers crossed, Alliot-Marie is the first of many: If Western governments want to have any credibility at all in the post-revolutionary Arab world, they need to stop hiring people, even as “envoys,” who are already in the pay of current or former Arab dictators. Blair should resign immediately from his role as an informal negotiator in the Middle East; Prince Andrew should be told to stay home. The Wisners of the world should be sent back into retirement. Finally, for good measure, the legions of former public officials now in the pay of Chinese, Russian, or Saudi businessmen should be kept far away from their previous places of employment, just in case. Come the revolution, you can be sure they will turn out to have embarrassing friends, too.

Correction, March 1, 2011: This piece originally misspelled Michèle Alliot-Marie’s forename. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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