Muammar Qaddafi delivered President Obama a welcome gift this week—a gift made all the more valuable by the remarkable lack of curiosity of the U.S. press about what exactly was contained inside the box.
The hero's welcome given to the convicted Lockerbie bomber in Tripoli diverted media attention from embarrassing questions about the bomber's release to the much easier issue of the bomber's reception. Now the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy will drive the entire subject into the back pages and specialty blogs.
President Obama is unlikely now to have to explain any of the strange mysteries and contradictions in his administration's handling of the affair.
When the Scottish government announced its decision to allow Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi to return home, the Obama administration reacted with remarkable restraint. Two hundred seventy people were murdered in the Lockerbie attack, 180 of them Americans—the worst international terrorist attack on Americans before 9/11 itself. Megrahi was the only person brought to justice in the case, and he had served only eight years in prison. Now he was to go free. The president's reaction? He called the decision a "mistake." In a written statement, his secretary of state pronounced herself "deeply disappointed."
This president knows how to express himself more vividly when he wishes. He didn't call the arrest of Henry Louis Gates a "mistake." It's not "disappointment" he conveys to Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli settlements.
The president's defenders applaud his restrained language. The blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote in praise of Obama's "no drama foreign policy": "Talking with the U.K. government in advance about our objections to releasing a Lockerbie bomber might achieve something. But loudly denouncing them ex post facto isn't going to help anyone or improve anything."
But the question raised by the president's muted response to the release is precisely that. Did the U.S. administration speak to the U.K. about the release in advance? And what did the U.S. say?
It's becoming apparent that much that has been said about the release was untrue, or at least misleading.
We were told that the decision was wholly and entirely that of Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill. That story is disintegrating before our eyes. Megrahi's release has been the subject of negotiation between the governments of Libya and the United Kingdom since at least 2004. Before quitting office, Tony Blair negotiated a prisoner transfer agreement with the Libyans—an eyebrow-raising use of prime ministerial time, since there was only one Libyan national in the entire U.K. prison system: Megrahi. At the same time, the U.K. energy company BP signed a huge new deal to explore for gas in Libya.
After meandering for years, the Megrahi discussions suddenly accelerated in 2009. Gordon Brown and Muammar al-Qaddafi met privately at the G-8 summit in Italy in July. According to correspondence released by Downing Street this week, they agreed there on a discreet reception for Megrabi in the event of a hypothetical future release.
So Scotland's decision came as no surprise to Gordon Brown. Rather what seemed to have happened was this:
The U.K. government negotiated and smoothed the way for Megrahi's release. Then it sat back and left the dirty work to the Scots, in full awareness of the very left-leaning MacAskill's soft-on-crime susceptibilities.
Brown knew his man. Scottish prison regulations contemplate compassionate release only for those within three months of death. It is not at all clear that Megrahi has come so close to his end—most of the medical advice received by the Scottish government predicted that Megrahi could live another year or more. MacAskill set aside the consensus to rely on one assessment by one doctor.
Relations between the Scottish and U.K. governments are poor these days, and so MacAskill's decision represented a double win for Brown: He got the release he wanted—and the Scottish National Party government back in Edinburgh got the blame.
But here's the question that has yet to be asked by U.S. reporters: Where was the Obama administration during these U.K. machinations?
We do know that the British kept the U.S. briefed well enough for American diplomats to protest the looming U.K./Scottish decision. At the same time, we read in the British press that U.S. officials indicated that they preferred a humanitarian release to a prisoner transfer.
Those reports raise further questions:
Exactly how vigorously did the Obama administration protest? Why did those protests produce so little result? Do Britons/Scots feel so little regard for the new Obama administration that they ignore its strong complaints? Or were complaints possibly less than strong? After all, a complaint in the form, "We don't want you to do X, but if you must do X, we prefer that you do it in the following way ..." does not constitute a very resounding warning.
If the U.S. complaints about the decision to release Megrahi were as weak as reported, why were they so weak? Many in the intelligence community have long doubted that the Libyans were in fact responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. Serious people have argued for 20 years that the attack originated in Syria and Iran. Does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton share those doubts? Very possibly so. Listen to her careful avoidance of any affirmative statement about Megrahi's guilt in an Aug. 19 interview with the BBC: "I just think it is absolutely wrong to release someone who has been imprisoned based on the evidence about his involvement in such a horrendous crime."
Will somebody please ask the secretary what she meant by those words? Will somebody please ask the president whether he too feels such doubts? And if the administration does doubt Megrahi's guilt, what steps will it take to bring the real terrorists to justice? Or is going after Syria and Iran even more inconvenient to this administration's foreign policy goals than going after Libya?
Nobody is asking. Nobody seems to much care. The festivities in Tripoli have allowed White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to pile up the rhetoric. The bomber's reception was "disgusting" said Gibbs. Those words enable reporters to say that the administration has strongly denounced ... something. But what exactly has been denounced?
Who notices the sleight of hand by which the condemnation has been redirected from the people who let Megrabi go to the people who took Megrahi in? Who sees that the intent of the administration's belated outrage is not to condemn Libya, but to exonerate itself?