An unusual exhibit of centrifuges from Libya’s nuclear program this week in Tennessee has again raised discussion about what the Libyan example represents in the battle to control weapons of mass destruction. Libya’s decision to abandon its WMD program is indeed a victory for the United States and its allies. But rather than supporting the idea that the use of pre-emptive force in Iraq will serve as an impetus for change within regimes that harbor WMD programs, the case of Libya presents a compelling example of the transformative power of containment, sanctions and diplomacy.
Center for American Progress Adjunct Scholar Dr. Ray Takeyh, a professor at the National Defense University and an expert on Near East affairs, analyzes the events within Libya and the international community that prompted the state to conclude that its nuclear program no longer served its national interests. In this piece, Takeyh explores the internal changes and external pressure that prompted Libyan leader Mu’ammar Qaddafi to rethink his stance on WMD. He proposes that the United States should ease economic sanctions in return for Libya’s cooperation and, in doing so, send a signal to Iran and Syria of the benefits they can gain by altering their policies.
On December 19, the Libyan regime stunned the international community by agreeing to end all its weapons of mass destruction programs. "Libya will co-operate with the [U.N. nuclear] agency with complete transparency," pledged Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalgham. In a typically melodramatic gesture, the official newspaper al-Jumhuriya declared, "The Libyan move is a declaration of war against the diplomacy of death." Since then, Tripoli’s cooperation with the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors has revealed much, not only about its program, but also about the shadowy international network that has trafficked in the sale of illicit nuclear equipment.
The evident transformation of Libya has been celebrated by the Bush administration as an affirmation of its Iraq policy. The conventional wisdom is that Libya’s head of state, Mu’ammar Qaddafi, quickly capitulated to a determined American president and accepted his mandates, having learned the lessons of Saddam. However, this simplistic and self-serving narrative misses the real reasons behind Libya’s reorientation. A robust policy of containment and sanctions pursued by three U.S. administrations and buttressed by an international consensus was the real cause of Libya’s changed behavior. Far from validating the Bush administration’s divisive preemption doctrine, the Libyan case demonstrates the utility of multilateral diplomacy and economic sanctions as a means of addressing the challenge of rogue states.
Libya Feels the Pressure
By the late 1990s, Libya’s economy lay prostrate as the reduction of oil prices and lack of managerial efficiency led to the decline of Tripoli’s financial fortunes. A prolonged recession resulting in an estimated 30 percent unemployment and 50 percent inflation rates confronted the regime with problems it could neither resolve nor contain. In the meantime, the resultant austerity program led to a further reduction of salaries and subsidies forcing many Libyans to take second jobs to maintain basic subsistence.
The debates regarding the direction of the state and its policies that emerged at this point took place under an ominous demographic shadow. Historically, many revolutionary regimes have benefited from the support of the younger generation, a segment of the population that has proven receptive to their ideological exhortations and pledges of anti-imperialist emancipation. In Libya, the opposite was becoming the reality, as the demographics were overwhelming the regime’s development plans and providing Qaddafi with an important source of opposition. The median age in Libya is just 22, and the inability of the regime to provide a meaningful future for its youth undermined its prospects among an increasingly disillusioned and volatile constituency.
Libya’s problems were further compounded by economic sanctions resulting from its complicity in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The Lockerbie process proved a watershed, as it constituted not just an economic setback, but also a psychological one for the Libyan strongman. Throughout his tenure, Qaddafi remained confident that, despite his behavior, the lure of Libya’s oil wealth and its commercial appeal would obstruct any American attempt to craft an international consensus behind a policy of isolating and coercing the state. The Lockerbie sanctions enacted by the United Nations in 1992 irrevocably shattered that perception. The U.N. sanctions prohibited financial transfers and the of sale of oil equipment and technology to Libya, limiting its ability to extract and export its oil. The United States managed to convince even countries such as Italy and Germany that enjoyed close economic ties with Libya to support sanctions until Qaddafi complied with America’s requests. For the first time, Qaddafi’s militancy had incurred a palpable cost. Dependent on access to the international petroleum market for its economic vitality, Libya wilted under the multilateral sanctions regime. Confronted with international isolation, internal dissent and economic distress, Qaddafi had to move on many fronts and defuse multiple internal and external crises.
Libya Takes Stock: The Revolution’s Fading Élan
In the late 1990s, Qaddafi’s economic advisers began to press him on the need to rapidly rejuvenate the economy. However, given the failure of a liberalization program launched earlier in the decade, the notion of deep-seated structural reform was not widely entertained among Libyan planners. The reality remained (and remains) that Libya lacked the foundation for a successful privatization policy; as the basic elements of such an initiative, including rule of law, transparency and coherent administrative institutions, were markedly absent. Moreover, any successful liberalization drive would have mandated that the central authorities relinquish control over key segments of society, a proposition that was utterly unacceptable to a despotic ruler seeking to control all levers of power. Given such restraints, Tripoli began to accept that it would have to revive the economy through international investments as opposed to domestic reform. The long-time Minister of Planning, Omar al-Montasser stressed, "We must invest $35 billion in 2001-2005 period." Although some of the funds would be generated internally, much was to come "from foreign investors." All of this necessitated coming to terms with the international community.
The minister’s advice coincided with Qaddafi’s own increasing preference for tempering the revolution. The demise of the Soviet Union not only deprived Qaddafi of a potential counter-weight to the United States, but also caused him to perceive new international alignments requiring different policies. The first hint of Qaddafi’s change of heart come in April 1999, when Libya finally accepted U.N. calls for a trial of the Pan Am 103 suspects in the Netherlands. After he had resisted the demands of the international community for years, Qaddafi’s sudden move confounded both his critics and supporters. The colonel justified his decision by simply noting, "the world has changed radically and drastically. The methods and ideas should change, and being a revolutionary and progressive man, I have followed this movement."
In a September 2000 speech commemorating the Libyan revolution, Qaddafi even declared the end of the old anti-imperialist struggle and stressed that the focal point of the evolving global order was economic wealth and technological prowess. "Now is the era of economy, consumption, markets and investments. This is what unites people irrespective of languages, religion or nationalities," the colonel mused. The previous policies of subsidizing rebellions and plotting the overthrow of sovereign leaders seemed out of place in an era of economic interdependence. The aged revolutionary seemingly recognized that it was time to abandon his exhilarating confrontation with the dominant West, acknowledging, "there is a common interest that binds Libya and the world politically and financially." It would take Qaddafi another three years to meet the demands of the international community, however, as the compensation of the Lockerbie victims and the colonel’s penchant for weapons of mass destruction continued to obstruct Tripoli’s pathway to international respectability.
The altered international landscape and internal pressures finally led Qaddafi to usher in a new foreign policy. As Libya entered the 21st century, it began to look away from the Middle East and shift its focus to Africa. Qaddafi began to emphasize that for small states to survive, much less prosper, they had to be integrated into cohesive continental political and economic frameworks. But for Libya to assume a prominent position on the African roundtable, it had to abandon its previous practice of financing rebellions and destabilizing local states. By reducing his financial support for armed factions and offering developmental aid, Qaddafi sought to prove that he had dispensed with his radical heritage and deserved a voice in the continent’s political transition. After decades of subverting the African state system, Qaddafi finally sought to make a positive contribution – albeit rooted in a disproportionate sense of his own political legitimacy – to the region’s political cohesion and economic rehabilitation. Even more momentous was Qaddafi’s gradual acceptance of the need for a more rational relationship with the United States. Soon after the election of President Bush, Libya left the door ajar to a potential dialogue over issues of common concern. Libya’s U.N. envoy, Abu Zayad Umar Durdah, claimed, "I expect that we will sit down with Americans and put the past behind us."
Libya’s New World
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, ironically, facilitated a greater degree of dialogue between the United States and Libya – a charter member of the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Threatened from within by its own brand of Islamic fundamentalism, Libya went beyond mere condemnation and actively shared information with the United States on the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, known to have links with al Qaeda. In a series of meetings between Assistant Secretary William Burns and head of Libyan intelligence Musa Kusa, Libya proved helpful and forthcoming. The meetings provided a catalyst for resolution of two of thorniest concerns of the United States, namely, Libyan sponsorship of terrorism and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
Terrorism has been one of Qaddafi’s most pernicious practices. Libyan military camps trained a generation of terrorists that cost the lives of countless innocent victims. However, as Qaddafi began to refurbish his international image and reconcile with erstwhile Arab foes, he abandoned terrorism as an instrument of his policy. In 1999, Libya expelled the notorious Abu Nidal organization from its territory and severed ties with radical Palestinian groups such as Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In a sign of the times, the former headquarters of the Abu Nidal organization now seats the Arab Language Institute. In addition, in the context of the Arab League’s Interior Ministers’ agreement, Libya cooperated with Egypt, Yemen and Jordan in terms of extraditing Islamist militants and suspected terrorists that had taken refuge in its territory. Finally, Tripoli came to terms with the legacy of its conduct and offered compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, ending one of the darkest chapters in the annals of terrorism. At a time when Libya is mediating civil conflicts and promoting investment opportunities, terrorism no longer serves its national interests.
As Libya sought international respectability, it began to exhibit a more pragmatic approach to the issue of proliferation. Even prior to its recent announcement, Tripoli had hinted at the possibility of accommodating the United States on this critical issue. In private meetings with Nelson Mandela, Qaddafi had intimated a desire to accept the Chemical Weapons Convention. With its December 19 announcement, Tripoli finally took its much-contemplated step. The economic motivation behind its policy was all too evident, as Prime Minister Shukri Ghamen noted, "Our priority is to improve our economy, to improve the standard of living, through peaceful means, to make the whole area clear from the weapons of mass destruction." Unlike many rogue states, Libya seems to have realized that the best manner of securing its national interests is stemming a potential arms race and accepting international treaties that limit weapons of mass destruction.
During the past three decades, Qaddafi has embarked on a quixotic mission of transforming the Afro-Arab bloc into a cohesive anti-Western unit. After a prolonged struggle, the colonel failed to achieve his ambition. In a sense, Qaddafi’s altered international orientation reflects that one of the Third World’s last revolutionary leaders has finally accepted the verdict of history.
The confluence of events that led Libya to its recent decisions was unique and not easily replicated elsewhere. Nonetheless, a more forthcoming U.S. policy can signal to the remaining rogue regimes that American hostility is not immutable, and that they can garner the benefits of engagement should they alter their policies. The Bush administration would be wise to reward Libya for its momentous concessions. Easing economic sanctions will not only reinforce Libya’s new found moderation, but also offer a salutary example to the recalcitrant regimes in Tehran and Damascus.
Dr. Ray Takeyyh is an adjunct scholar at the Center for American Progress and a professor at the National Defense University.