Libya: Will the US Take Yes for an Answer?

The decision by Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi to come clean, so to speak, and give up his weapons of mass destruction is being touted, by the War Party, as proof that their program of “regime change” in Iraq has put the fear of God – or, at least, of Washington and London – in the region’s bad boys. But to anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention to Libya and its eccentric leader for the past decade or so, this contention is utter nonsense.

Libyan efforts to break out of economic and diplomatic isolation long preceded the invasion of Iraq: the surrender and trial of the two suspects in the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, in 1999, made it plain to even the least attentive that the world-renowned oddball, who once fancied himself the Che Guevara of the Arab world, was going “straight.”

The process leading to the dropping of United Nations sanctions and the rapid reintegration of Libya into the Mediterranean matrix of commerce, culture, and diplomacy began well before the Iraq war was a twinkle in Paul Wolfowtiz’s eye. As Ray Takeyh noted in Foreign Affairs [May-June, 2001]:

“Libya’s ongoing reintegration into the world community has already started to pay off, and the rewards it has won from reclaimed trade partnerships have generated a desire within the country to come to terms with the Americans as well. Unlike Iran, which refuses official contact with the United States, Libya is eager to open a diplomatic dialogue. Abuzed Dorda, Libya’s U.N. envoy, has said, ‘I expect that we will sit down with the Americans and put the past behind us.’ Even Qadaffi, in his own eccentric manner, has made overtures to the new American president, stressing, ‘I believe that George W. Bush will be nice. As a person he is not malicious or imperialist. I believe that he attaches importance to the United States and does not have world ambitions.'”

That’s a heck of a lot more credit than many of Bush’s own countrymen are giving him.

Qadaffi’s high international profile over the years is mainly on account of his role as a mercurial moonbat among world leaders: certainly, after 34 years in power, he is one of the most enduring. Since seizing power from a weak, Western-supported king, in 1969, he has been a veritable barometer of trendiness – the Jai Rodriguez of Arab strongmen.

As an army officer in the early 1960s seeking to throw out the evil foreigners and lead his people to “liberation,” young Moammar was in the vanguard of the Nasserist trend, promoting a pan-Arabist nationalist vision that catapulted him into power. In the 1960s and 70s, when ultra-leftist guerrilla-ism was all the rage, the Libyan leader supported terrorist gangs, including the Irish Republican Army. In the 1980s, he took up the cause of the ultra-rejectionists among the Palestinians: “If Abu Nidal is a terrorist,” he famously announced, “then so is George Washington.”

In the 1990s, however, Qadaffi seemed to mellow: he was, after all, getting on in years, and it was time to become, if not exactly a neoconservative, as least as close to the classic definition as one can get in Libya. Settling the Lockerbie affair was only the culmination of a decade-long effort to lose his status as an outsider. With pan-Arabism having long since petered out, Qadaffi turned to an even more unlikely panacea: pan-Africanism.

The big problem with his new scheme, however, was that Libyans have never considered themselves Africans. Separated from their sub-Saharan neighbors by a nearly impassable desert – and linked to Europe by history as well as geography – they are Mediterraneans, culturally far closer to their Sicilian first cousins than to their distant relations south of the equator. A recent influx of African workers led to riots in which at least 600 were killed. Adding fuel to the fire, no doubt the average Libyan is wondering if the gusher of aid their leader has showered on the cause of African unity might be better spent at home – especially when his own standard of living is piteous by Western European standards.

Always at the forefront of every trend, even before it breaks upon an unsuspecting world, Qadaffi’s latest turn is the culmination and crowning achievement of his career as an ideological weathervane. Having exhausted all other directions, he is now turning toward Europe and working to reinsert Libya into its historic role as a Mediterranean nation. The British have taken the lead in the reintegration of a former pariah into the “concert of Europe,” at least economically: while the recent announcement of Libya’s intent to disarm is credited to the joint diplomatic efforts of the U.S. and Britain, no doubt the latter was the catalyst crucial to starting and completing the negotiations.

Qadaffi’s turnaround on WMD poses a challenge to U.S. policymakers: how will they deal with the rising call among Arab states that Israel must now be compelled to do likewise? In a single stroke, Qadaffi has painted himself as both a man of peace and a leading figure in the Arab world, giving the Arab cause the moral high ground in its continuing stand-off with Ariel Sharon. While the Israelis are building an ominous-looking Wall of Separation, festooned with barbed wire, and denouncing the independent Geneva accords signed by unofficial Israeli and Palestinian representatives, Arab leaders are calling for regional disarmament and throwing their arsenals open to inspection. Meanwhile, Mordecai Vanunu, the Robert Oppenheimer of Israel, is still rotting in an Israeli jail for letting out the open secret of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Israel’s neoconservative partisans will not be too inclined to take Libya’s yes for an answer, but in this case their old enemy appears to have outfoxed if not yet outflanked them.

The argument that only the invasion and occupation of Iraq made the Libyan announcement possible is sheer bunk: the Libyans were ready to come around at the beginning of the Clinton era, but the Great Pants-dropper was ready to nuke them.

“Mercurial” is the word most often attached to Qadaffi’s name. In the 1990s he kicked out terrorist training camps that he had once nurtured, began his rapprochement with Europe, and made constant overtures to the Clinton administration, which just as consistently rebuffed him. He unequivocally condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, likened the rise of Bin Laden to the progress of a “cancer,” and quickly cooperated with U.S. intelligence in turning over information on terrorist suspects and Al Qaeda’s activities.

The case of the Libyan turnaround illustrates the exact opposite of what the war-hawks say it does. It is a perfect example of why the Iraq war, and the subsequent insurrection, could have been completely avoided, while still achieving the ostensible aims of the U.S. and Britain – eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Negotiations work. In any event, there were no WMDs in Iraq’s case, and that was never the issue, anyway: we all know, by now, why we really went to war, and who lied us into it.

With the Arab states beginning to unite around the issue of Israeli WMDs, particularly nukes, Israel’s amen corner in the U.S. is clearly put on the defensive. The image of Ariel Sharon (or an even more right-wing successor) turning the Middle East into a sea of glass is a potent one in the war for world opinion, particularly American public opinion, because it seems increasingly possible. If daffy Qadaffi will give up his WMDs, including his nuclear program, and Sharon won’t, is it any wonder that Israel is fast taking Libya’s old place as international pariah of the Mediterranean world?

Having grasped on to every possible wrong idea (socialism, terrorism, and foreign adventurism, to name only the top three), the kooky Qadaffi – whose antics have alternately amused and horrified us for three decades – finally hit on one that makes sense.

Now perhaps the foreign policy of the U.S. government can begin to make a modicum of sense. Washington must take yes for an answer, end diplomatic and economic sanctions, and immediately normalize relations with Libya, or else lose all credibility.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].