Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

January 23, 2004

As President Bush made clear in his State of the Union address, he sees the striking developments in relations with Libya as the fruit of his strategy in the war on terrorism. The idea is that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s apparent decision to renounce weapons of mass destruction was a largely a result of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which thus retroactively justifies the war in Iraq and holds out the prospect of similar progress with other states that support terrorists, seek weapons of mass destruction and brutalize their own people.

However, by linking shifts in Libya’s behavior to the Iraq war, the president misrepresents the real lesson of the Libyan case. This confusion undermines our chances of getting countries like Iran and Syria to follow Libya’s lead.

The roots of the recent progress with Libya go back not to the eve of the Iraq war, but to the Bush administration’s first year in office. Indeed, to be fair, some credit should even be given to the second Clinton administration. Tired of international isolation and economic sanctions, the Libyans decided in the late 1990’s to seek normalized relations with the United States, and held secret discussions with Clinton administration officials to convey that message. The Clinton White House made clear that no movement toward better relations was possible until Libya met its responsibilities stemming from the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

These discussions, along with mediation by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, produced a breakthrough: Libya turned over two intelligence officers implicated in the Pan Am 103 attack to the Netherlands for trial by a Scottish court, and in 1999 Washington acquiesced to the suspension of United Nations sanctions against Libya.

Then, in the spring of 2001, when I was a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, the Bush administration picked up on those discussions and induced the Libyans to meet their remaining Lockerbie obligations. With our British colleagues, we presented the Libyans with a “script” indicating what they needed to do and say to satisfy our requirements on compensating the families of the Pan Am 103 victims and accepting responsibility for the actions of the Libyan intelligence officers implicated in the case.

We also put an explicit quid pro quo on the table: if Libya met the conditions we laid out, the United States and Britain would allow United Nations sanctions to be lifted permanently. This script became the basis for three-party negotiations to resolve the Lockerbie issue.

By early 2003, after a Scottish appeals court upheld the conviction of one of the Libyan intelligence officers, it was evident that our approach would bear fruit. Indeed, Washington allowed the United Nations sanctions against Libya to be removed last summer after Libya reached a compensation agreement with the Pan Am 103 families and accepted responsibility for its officials’ actions.

But during these two years of talks, American negotiators consistently told the Libyans that resolving the Lockerbie situation would lead to no more than elimination of United Nations sanctions. To get out from under the separate United States sanctions, Libya would have to address other concerns, particularly regarding its programs in weapons of mass destruction.

This is the context in which Libyan officials approached the United States and Britain last spring to discuss dismantling Libya’s weapons program. The Iraq war, which had not yet started, was not the driving force behind Libya’s move. Rather, Libya was willing to deal because of credible diplomatic representations by the United States over the years, which convinced the Libyans that doing so was critical to achieving their strategic and domestic goals. Just as with Lockerbie, an explicit quid pro quo was offered: American officials indicated that a verifiable dismantling of Libya’s weapons projects would lead the removal our own sanctions, perhaps by the end of this year.

The lesson is incontrovertible: to persuade a rogue regime to get out of the terrorism business and give up its weapons of mass destruction, we must not only apply pressure but also make clear the potential benefits of cooperation. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has refused to take this approach with other rogue regimes, notably Iran and Syria. Until the president is willing to employ carrots as well as sticks, he will make little headway in changing Iranian or Syrian behavior.

The president’s lack of initiative on this point is especially disappointing because, in the diplomatic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration has a singular opportunity to effect strategic realignments by both Iran and Syria. Well-placed Iranians, including more pragmatic elements of Iran’s conservative camp, have indicated through diplomatic channels and to former officials (including myself) their interest in a “grand bargain” with the United States. Basically, Tehran would trade off its ties to terrorist groups and pursuit of nuclear weapons for security guarantees, a lifting of sanctions and normalized relations with Washington.

Likewise, senior Syrian officials—including President Bashar al-Assad himself, in a conversation in Damascus last week—have told me that they want a better strategic understanding with the United States. To achieve this, however, Washington needs to be willing to spell out what Syria would get in return for giving up its ties to terrorists and its chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. As Mr. Assad told me, Syria is “a state, not a charity”—if it gives up something, it must know what it will gain in return.

One reason the Bush administration was able to take a more constructive course with Libya was that the White House, uncharacteristically, sidelined the administration’s neoconservative wing—which strongly opposes any offer of carrots to state sponsors of terrorism, even when carrots could help end such problematic behavior—when crucial decisions were made. The initial approach on the Lockerbie case was approved by an informal coalition made up of Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Likewise, in the lead up to the negotiations involving Libyan weapons of mass destruction, the neoconservatives at the Pentagon and in the shop of Under Secretary of State John Bolton were left out of the loop.

Perhaps a coalition among members of the State Department’s bureau of Near Eastern affairs and the National Security Council’s more pragmatic elements can chart a similar course involving Iran and Syria. However, until the administration learns the real lessons of the Libyan precedent, policy toward other rogue regimes is likely to remain stuck in the mud of ideology.