The Magazine

Fair Is Foul in Scotland

The feckless release of a Libyan terrorist.

Sep 7, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 47 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Even if there was no explicit quid pro quo, future deals consummated between British firms and the Libyan government will be seen in light of their down payment, Megrahi's release. And while Lord Trefgarne may be right that Lockerbie is over and done with "as far as the Libyans are concerned," it certainly is not for the families of the victims. FBI director Robert Mueller, who was assistant attorney general in charge of the Megrahi investigation in 1991, wrote a scorching letter to MacAskill: "Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law" and "a mockery of the emotions, passions and pathos of all those affected by the Lockerbie tragedy" and "a mockery of the grief of the families."

So perhaps we just disagree with some of our European friends over matters like compassionate release for international terrorists and the price of "cooperation" to get business deals done. The dysfunction enters elsewhere: namely, that apparently nobody could understand that releasing Megrahi, let alone letting him go home to Libya, let alone to receive a well-publicized hero's welcome, was really a foreign policy question, and one with the potential for causing a huge disruption internationally, as it has.

The pretense, shared by the Scottish home-rule authorities and the Brown government, was that this whole affair was about whether Scotland's justice secretary was persuaded that a prisoner in his custody would shortly die and should be released. (Questions have been raised about the three-months-to-live claim, as it happens; Megrahi was not exactly on his deathbed when he arrived triumphant in Tripoli.) But that's not what this was about. The Brown government should have seen as much and asserted itself. London still has responsibility for U.K. foreign policy; Scotland doesn't get to have its own. The principle of subsidiarity became a convenient excuse to do nothing.

This is a broader problem for Europe with the emergence of a model of "pooled sovereignty" involving the European Union, national governments, local jurisdictions, and semi-autonomous regions that set policy on their own. When a minor local official has final say over the release of a world-class terrorist, something has gone badly wrong. The intervention of the Brown government with Libya only to ask that Megrahi not receive a celebratory welcome was just pathetic: The problem was not the ceremony; it was the release.

The U.K. in the case of Scotland and the EU more generally in relation to national governments are in danger of creating an environment in which no one is really in charge of thinking about the international implications of local decisions. That's the path to fecklessness on a continental scale.

Tod Lindberg, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review.