The Iraq War did not Force Gadaffi’s Hand

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 9, 2004

Embarrassed by the failure to find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, President George W. Bush is trying to find another WMD-related justification for his pre-emptive war on Iraq. Bush administration spokesmen have been quick to portray Libya’s December decision to abandon WMD programmes as the direct result of the US invasion of Iraq or, as Mr. Bush himself put it in his State of the Union address: “Nine months of intense negotiations succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not.” In diplomacy, noted the president, “words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America” (applause).

The implication is clear. Get rid of one dictator because of his supposed WMD programmes and others will be so afraid that they will voluntarily abandon their weapons programmes. Therefore, even if no WMDs were found in Iraq, we still made the world a safer place. The perfect comeback.

In Muammer Gadaffi’s case, this proposition is questionable. In fact, Libyan representatives offered to surrender WMD programmes more than four years ago, at the outset of secret negotiations with US officials. In May 1999, their offer was officially conveyed to the US government at the peak of the “12 years of diplomacy with Iraq” that Mr. Bush now disparages. Back then, Libya was facing a deepening economic crisis produced by disastrous economic policies and mismanagement of its oil revenues. United Nations and US sanctions that prevented Libya importing oilfield technology made it impossible for Mr. Gadaffi to expand oil production. The only way out was to seek rapprochement with Washington.

Reinforcing this economic imperative was Mr. Gadaffi’s own quest for respectability. Fed up with pan-Arabism, he turned to Africa, only to find little support from old allies there. Removing the sanctions and their accompanying stigma became his priority.

From the start of President Bill Clinton’s administration, Mr. Gadaffi had tried to open back-channels, using various Arab interlocutors with little success. Disappointed, he turned to Britain, first settling a dispute over the shooting of a British policewoman in London and then offering to send the two Libyans accused in the Lockerbie PanAm 103 bombing for trial in a third country. For the US, accepting this offer had the advantage of bringing Libyan terrorists to justice. But it also generated pressure in the UN Security Council to lift sanctions. The task of US diplomacy then was to maintain the sanctions until Mr. Gadaffi had fulfilled all other obligations under the UN resolutions: ending support for terrorism, admitting culpability and compensating victims’ families.

That was why the Clinton administration opened the secret talks on one condition—that Libya cease lobbying in the UN to lift the sanctions. It did. At the first meeting, in Geneva in May 1999, we used the promise of official dialogue to persuade Libya to co-operate in the campaign against Osama bin Laden and provide compensation for the Lockerbie families.

Libya’s representatives were ready to put everything on the table, saying that Mr. Gadaffi had realised that was not the path to pursue and that Libya and the US faced a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism. In that context, they said, Libya would actively co-operate in the campaign against al-Qaeda and would end all support for Palestinian “rejectionist” groups, endorse US peace efforts in the Middle East and help in conflict resolution in Africa.

On the issue of WMD, the US at the time was concerned about Libya’s clandestine production of chemical weapons. Expressing a preference for a multilateral forum, Libyan representatives offered to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and open their facilities to inspection. In a subsequent meeting in October 1999, Libya repeated its offer on chemical weapons and agreed to join the Middle East multilateral arms control talks taking place at the time. Why did we not pursue the Libyan WMD offer then? Because resolving the PanAm 103 issues was our condition for any further engagement. Moreover, as Libya’s chemical weapons programme was not considered an imminent threat and its nuclear programme barely existed, getting Libya out of terrorism and securing compensation had to be top priorities. We told the Libyans that once these were achieved, UN sanctions could be lifted but US sanctions would remain until the WMD issues were resolved.

The fact that Mr. Gadaffi was willing to give up his WMD programmes and open facilities to inspection four years ago does not detract from the Bush administration’s achievement in securing Libya’s nuclear disarmament. However, in doing so, Mr. Bush completed a diplomatic game plan initiated by Mr. Clinton. The issue here, however, is not credit. Rather, it is whether Mr. Gadaffi gave up his WMD programmes because Mr. Hussein was toppled, as Mr. Bush now claims. As the record shows, Libyan disarmament did not require a war in Iraq.