Weapons Grade

When Muammar Qaddafi announced last month that Libya would relinquish its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), few around the world denied that the move was for the better. That, however, was where agreement ended. On the thornier questions–how dangerous was Libya’s program, how important is the new deal, and how much credit should the Bush administration be given–the verdict is still out.

Despite the hair-raising list of weapons that accompanied the Libyan announcement–nuclear, biological, and chemical arms, plus ballistic missiles to boot–the program did not pose a substantial near-term security threat. By all accounts, Libya’s biological weapons activities had not yet moved beyond the laboratory and were nowhere close to doing so. Its chemical arms, while a proven menace, were not particularly threatening to the United States or its deployed forces. And Libya’s nuclear program had not yet yielded fissile material for a weapon.

Whether Libya’s activities posed an intermediate-term threat depends mainly on how advanced its nuclear program was. When the deal was first announced, senior Bush administration officials argued that Libya’s program was highly developed. Taking the opposite position, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, after visiting several newly disclosed sites, pronounced Libya’s program to be at a relatively early stage. ElBaradei, whose charge is to make a strict assessment of fact, had access to roughly the same facilities and information as the Americans, suggesting that U.S. officials probably overstated their conclusions. Nonetheless, ElBaradei clearly exceeded the limits of what it was possible to conclude from his new tour when he declared that Libya’s program was not particularly advanced. The IAEA had been fooled about the extent of Libya’s activities for years. How could ElBaradei have any confidence that what he had seen was all there was to see? For the time being, the best that can be said about Libya’s program is that while it was more advanced than previously believed, we don’t know precisely how far it had progressed.

But regardless of how imminent a threat Libya was, the agreement to end its WMD programs is significant for several reasons. The first is that Libya’s action lights a path along which other states can peacefully walk away from WMD. While many have pointed out that Libya is not the first state to peacefully give up a WMD program, several attributes make it a unique and important example: It is the first state in an extremely unstable neighborhood to acquire and then forswear WMD. It is also the first Middle Eastern state to pursue and then abandon WMD. And it is the first state to give up an illegal program–rather than a legal one (as was the case in Ukraine) or one not covered by agreements (as in Brazil). As a result, Libya’s move does something no past denuclearization has done: It gives America a window into the underground networks that fuel proliferation, which should help in follow-up efforts to prevent the spread of WMD.

The second implication has to do with the role of international institutions. Many commentators on the right and left have suggested that the Libyan turnaround was the result of only a year’s work, but the reality is the opposite. While there’s no discounting the relevance of the past year’s events, there should also be no denying that a web of rules and institutions, established and applied over the course of two decades, set the stage for this year’s final push. Among other things, it was the international taboo against WMD that, more than anything else, held together the punishing international economic sanctions enforced against Libya over the last several years.

Finally, Libya’s move should correct some disturbing tendencies in American conventional wisdom. The Libyan reversal comes at a time when many on the right were shifting toward the view that no state pursuing nuclear weapons could be stopped without the use of military force; the Libyan about-face serves as a stark counterexample. (This is not to say that an American willingness to use military force, specifically as demonstrated against Iraq, did not play some, if not a major, role in Qaddafi’s decision. Only that no force was applied directly against Libya.) Meanwhile, it should teach the left a similar and equally important lesson: The use of regime change as a tool of nonproliferation isn’t inherently self-defeating. For many on the left, the lesson of Iraq was supposed to be “Get your nukes faster,” with North Korea and Iran cited as examples. Libya, however, shows that this rule is not universal.

It’s still too early to say whether the left has learned its lesson. But there’s already some indication that the right has not. Though some Bush backers credit the president’s diplomacy as decisive, many have drawn a direct causal line between Saddam Hussein’s ouster and Qaddafi’s contrition. If the president does the same and emphasizes military threats to the exclusion of all else, the current moment will be wasted.