Parsing the Libyan Myth

The battle for Najaf, at least at the military level, is inconclusive as I write, and the ultimate political implications will probably take weeks or months to sort out, though it is virtually certain that one result will be better recruiting prospects for militants, insurgents, jihadists and the like. The nomination of Porter Goss to head the CIA suggests that whatever faint hope one might have had for significant reform is the stuff of fleeting dreams, but plenty of people have already commented on that.

I’ve been meaning for some time to deal with the case of Libya, and now seems as good a time to do it as any.

It’s hard to imagine anybody who was not fairly pleased when Libya, last December, chose to abandon weapons of mass destruction and, in essence, rejoin the world of (relatively) decent nations. Libya had for decades been a major sponsor of terrorism (no, Virginia, it didn’t start with Osama bin Laden), notably including the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub in which two U.S. soldiers were killed. That incident prompted then-President Ronald Reagan to bomb Tripoli, quite likely targeting Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, or at least one of his palaces.

That bit of retaliation didn’t prevent Libyan involvement in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie airplane bombing. It might be notable, however, that Libya did turn over two Libyan intelligence honchos suspected of organizing the incident in 1999 to the Hague, to be tried under Scottish law – well before 9/11 or the Iraq war.

More recently, just this week in fact, Libya agreed to pay some $35 million to about 160 non-U.S. victims of the Berlin nightclub bombing. Payouts to relatives of the two Americans, as well as a Turkish woman who was killed in the bombing, are being negotiated separately. However, the European Union still has some issues with Libya that could postpone the onset of full and relatively friendly diplomatic and commercial relations.

Bringing Libya Around
So what brought Libya from being the Number One state sponsor of terrorism to being (to exaggerate more than a bit) an exemplar of sweet reason and diplomacy? A widely accepted version of the conventional wisdom is that it was President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq. Once Gaddafi saw that the American president was resolute (or unhinged) enough to take that step, he decided it was time to come in from the cold, come clean about weapons of mass destruction, and rejoin the family of socially-approved nations.

This view was expressed recently by retired National Review editor and syndicated columnist Bill Buckley, in a column written after he famously doubted whether the war in Iraq was justified. He notes a speech President Bush gave on July 12, "which sheds light on ambient questions."

"What especially catches the eye," Buckley continues, "is his [Bush’s] saying that ‘Libya is dismantling its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. This progress came about through quiet diplomacy between America, Britain, and the Libyan government.’" Buckley’s noted fastidiousness about language and usage isn’t visibly triggered by the incorrect use of "between" in that sentence, but let it pass. We have other fish to fry.

Buckley continues: "The mind travels to the question: Why could not diplomacy have accomplished in Iraq what it accomplished in Libya? But the President keen-wittedly bases the success of Libya on quiet diplomacy, but quiet diplomacy backed up by our own commitment to ‘defending the peace by taking the fight to the enemy.’ [An Orwellian construction that uttered by someone else might have triggered Buckley’s critical juices, but let that pass also.] He is contending, in effect, that if it hadn’t been for our military entry into Iraq, Gaddafi might have continued his development of nuclear weapons. Who can dispositively argue that this analysis is wrong?"

Given that Buckley goes on to argue that if the war is something "necessary to fortify the U.S. presence in the world" and has brought Libya to recognize sweet reason, it might be justified, I’ll have to argue rather forcefully that the facts of the case argue otherwise.

Opinions Hardly Unanimous
As far back as last December, shortly after Libya’s decision to come clean about weapons, Howard La Branch, in the Christian Science Monitor, noted that "The man who once topped the A-list of international terrorism has sought to emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation ever since he was linked to the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But Colonel Gaddafi’s efforts accelerated behind the scenes in March, on the eve of the U.S.-led military effort to oust Saddam Hussein – timing some see as more than coincidence."

So Gaddafi has been trying to change his ways – or get others to be convinced he has changed his ways – since around 1988? The Monitor story goes on to quote Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy specialist at Brookings, to the effect that "Gaddafi got out of the terrorism business in the 1990s, and he’s getting out of WMD now because domestically he’s up against a wall. The greatest incentive … is the prospect of reestablishing economic relations" with Europe and the United States.

Interestingly, just last week a 19-company business delegation, including people from Raytheon, DaimlerChrysler, Motorola, Fluor and Bell Helicopter completed the first non-oil business delegation to Libya in some 17 years. Retired Ambassador Mark Parris, who chairs the Libyan group of something called the Corporate Council on Africa, deemed the trip a success, claiming that "Libyans are eager for American products of all kinds. The country represents great opportunity for American business and its work force."

So maybe carrots work better than sticks and it was U.S. stubbornness rather than Libyan reluctance that made it take so long? Let’s explore some more evidence.

Earlier Overtures
Last December I attended a conference in Israel at which veteran overseas correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, now editor at large at United Press International, was also a speaker. During informal moments – Arnaud is an inveterate name-dropper, but then he has interviewed most of the major world leaders since the 1950s at one time or another – he told me about a trip he had made to Libya in the 1990s, during which Gaddafi had gone off the record and asked de Borchgrave to quietly deliver a message to people Arnaud knew in the State department and the CIA that he was ready and eager to work with them against the then-emerging threat of jihadist terrorists.

So Gaddafi was interested in making amends and reestablishing relations with the West long before Iraq was attacked. In January, Arnaud de Borchgrave wrote about the incident in his column:

"By 1993 wiser counsels had prevailed [following serious rethinking about being a ‘rogue’ state that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union]. On July 6, after a lengthy interview, he went off the record and asked me to deliver a message to the director of Central Intelligence in Washington. He admitted Libya’s guilt for the downing of Pan Am 103, but made clear that it was originally an Iranian terrorist attack for the downing by the U.S. Navy of a peaceful Iran Air Airbus on its daily run across the Strait of Hormuz.

"’Nobody in our part of the world believed the U.S. government when it said it was an accidental occurrence. So the Iranians subcontracted part of the job to a Syrian intelligence service, which, in turn, asked the Libyan Mukhabarat to handle part of the assignment,’ Col. Gaddafi explained. ‘That is the way these things were handled in those days. If we had initiated the plot, we would have made sure the accusing finger was pointed in the other direction and we would have picked Cyprus, not Malta, where some of the organization was done. The others picked Malta presumably to frame us.’

"Col. Gaddafi then said he was anxious to work directly with the CIA against Islamist terrorists ‘who are just as much of a danger to us as they are to you.’ He said he was prepared to give the CIA valuable information for fighting transnational terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda, but not those that are ‘national liberation movements fighting against Israeli colonialism.’"

The column goes on to maintain that the CIA and Gaddafi did get together and Gaddafi proved his value. While de Borchgrave does believe that the fall of Saddam Hussein was a tipping point, a much longer-term back channel relationship paved the way for welcoming Libya back into the fold.

The Hart Experience
Also in January, former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart wrote a piece for the Washington Post about an even earlier experience with Libyans.

"In February 1992, five years after I retired from the Senate and entered the world of international law, I was approached at my hotel while on a business trip to Athens by a man identifying himself as a ‘naval attaché’ from the Libyan Embassy, who was almost certainly with the Libyan intelligence. This was by no means the first time such a thing had happened to me since leaving the Senate. Nevertheless, there was an air of intrigue about the meeting, and it led to intensive contacts with the Libyan government over the next several weeks."

Hart writes, "I discouraged the idea that I was an appropriate contact person for the first Bush administration; I also immediately notified senior State Department officials of the encounter. In a meeting in Washington on March 6, 1992, State discounted the approach on the grounds that it was one of several such approaches and none was taken seriously. ‘We will have no discussions with the Libyans,’ was the answer, ‘until they turn over the Pan Am bombers.’"

Hart transmitted the information to the Libyans through Greek intermediaries, and was surprised by further contact from Libyans. Eventually he met Libyan officials in Geneva. "Almost immediately, the Libyans said they would turn over the two Pan Am bombing suspects, later named as Abdel Basset Ali Meghrai and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, in exchange for a commitment from the first Bush administration that preliminary discussions would begin within a reasonable period of time regarding the lifting of sanctions and eventual normalization of relations between our two countries." Hart relayed the offer to State, and received the reply that State didn’t take the offer seriously and discouraged further discussions.

Nonetheless, the Libyans insisted on further discussions and got into serious detail about legal issues and the logistics of turning over the two Libyans, along with assurances from Hart that they would have adequate defense counsel. After several meetings, however, the U.S. turned the offer down flat, on the grounds that if the suspects stepped on Swiss soil they might never be extradited to Scotland or the U.S. Hart still thinks, "The explanation was lame."

Even that didn’t discourage the Libyans. They eventually persuaded Sen. Hart to come to Tripoli clandestinely for further discussion with Abdul Salaam Jalloud, the prime minister. The offer was the same: the suspects for starting normalization. "I insisted that such discussion would have to include verifiable cessation of any support for terrorism," Hart wrote, "and confirmed abandonment of weapons of mass destruction programs, to which Jalloud responded that ‘everything will be on the table.’"

After confirming with the Italian foreign minister that the Libyans were probably quite serious, Gary Hart once again relayed the offer to the United States. Once again the answer was a flat no. Case closed.

As Hart concluded, "We might have brought the Pan Am bombers to justice, and quite possibly have moved Libya out of its renegade status, much sooner than we have. At the very least it calls into serious question the assertion that Libya changed direction as a result of our preemptive invasion of Iraq."

The invasion of Iraq might have had something to do with the timing, but I think the case that Libya was brought around by that event, or even mainly by that event, can be dispositively dismissed.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).