Lenient on Libya

The world must make sure Gaddafi follows up on his promises of reform.


Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, is on his first trip to Europe in 15 years, pushing for political and economic relations with the bloc and the lifting of the arms embargo against his country. The visit follows massive payouts to the families of the victims killed in Libyan- sponsored airplane bombings in the 1980s and the country’s declaration and dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction programs.

Gaddafi underlined Libya’s desire to live in peace and harmony with the rest of the world community, but he also had some sharp words, even threats, for his new European and American friends:

“We do hope that we shall not be obliged or forced one day to go back to those days when we bomb our cars or put explosive belts around our beds and around our women so that we will not be searched and not be harassed in our bedrooms and in our homes, as it is taking place now in Iraq and in Palestine.”

Certainly not the kind of talk the Bush administration, which lifted most of the U.S. sanctions, in place for nearly two decades against Libya, was hoping for.

While Gaddafi’s December disclosure and renunciation of the W.M.D. programs provided the Bush administration with a badly needed foreign policy success—one it could claim as the direct result of the “war against terror” in general and the invasion Iraq in particular. But the reality is a little different. It’s not a simple matter of Gaddafi seeing what happened to Saddam and deciding to change his ways for fear of suffering the same fate. Rather, the diplomatic triumph for which George W. is taking credit, is more the result of the diplomatic negotiations carried out by the first Bush and Clinton administrations. As USA Today argues:

“…the story of Gadhafi’s long road to rehabilitation is more complex. Interviews with a half-dozen current and former U.S. officials, Libya experts and a Libyan-American close to Gadhafi’s family show that Libya began discussing giving up weapons of mass destruction in 1992, when its arsenal was rudimentary. And it may have bought nuclear technology just to have something to give up in final negotiations.

‘Gadhafi felt that the Americans wanted some more to get them interested, so he put some more on the table,’ says Mohammed Bukhres, a Libyan-American with close ties to Gadhafi’s sons. ‘We tried for a long time to get relations with the United States. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s because of the invasion of Iraq.'”

It’s reasonable to assume that the invasion of Iraq propelled Gaddafi’s urgency to seal the deal, the desire to have economic sanctions lifted, along with the political influence of Saif Al-Islam — Gaddafi’s London-educated son, who may inherit the leadership of the country—were probably more important factors. As Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN:

“Over the last six or seven years, Qaddafi has steadily moved towards Europe, waiting to integrate, focused on a program of economic development for Libya. That means he needs Western investment and markets. That means he has to comply with international norms. So this whole move precedes the Bush administration and precedes the war in Iraq.”

Gaddafi styles himself as the voice of the”Third World” and rails against Western imperialism, but his country’s oil wealth has gone towards financing costly weapons programs and the luxurious lifestyle of its ruling class. Just so that E.U. officials don’t forget that they are dealing with a leader whose country’s human rights record falls far short of E.U. norms, Amnesty International scheduled the release of its report on Libya to coincide with the Gaddafi’s visit. The report criticized the “disappearances” of Gaddafi’s political opponents,”a continuing failure to investigate and resolve past abuses, and a climate of fear in which most Libyans are afraid to raise concerns over current and past violations.”

Libya has signed deals with Western oil companies, such as Shell, that will be worth billions of dollars, and human rights activists fear that the West will look the other way on Libya’s human rights record and may not push Lybia to provide full disclosure of its past sponsorship of terrorism. Even the families of the British victims of the Lockerbee bombing who supported Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Tripoli last month were furious that Libya is not being pressured to reveal all it knows about those who carried out the bombing. The spokeswoman for the families of accused Blair of merely paying “lip service” to their concerns:

“We find it difficult to believe that neither the U.K. government nor the Crown Office has any further questions to ask in Libya that could shed light upon what happened…

Who are the co-conspirators? What was the motivation behind the bombing? Who financed this act of terrorism? Who was ultimately responsible? How was it allowed to happen?”

Those who have condemned the U.N.’s lifting of sanctions and international leaders’ rehabilitation of Gaddafi from a brutal dictator and a sponsor of terrorism to a respectable head of state to begin with, fear that the lifting of sanctions has removed pressure on Libya to come clean about its terrorist activities.

Whether Gaddafi’s conversion is genuine or a charade, he is expected to leave Europe with an assurance of his country’s full membership in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, an economic pact in which Libya currently has observer status. Italy is pushing for the arms embargo against Libya to be lifted so that it can better patrol its border. (Italy is flooded with illegal immigrants who arrive via the Mediterranean Sea and use Italy as an entry point to the rest of Europe.) Before the E.U. normalizes relations with Libya, though, Germany demands compensation for a 1986 disco attack in Berlin and Bulgaria wants the release of several of its doctors held in Libya on charges of spreading the H.I.V. virus via injection.

European Union commission head Romano Prodi was so eager to welcome Gaddafi that he broke protocol by meeting him at the plane, but unfortunately Prodi chose not to bring up Libya’s poor human rights record and the need for democratic reforms. The hope is that the E.U. will use the establishment of full economic and political relations as leverage to force Lybia to undertake political reforms. As Philip McCrum, a Libya expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

“Particularly if Libya joins the Barcelona process, the euro-Mediterranean partnership, there will be much more chance to develop a dialogue with Libya on that. … And indeed I think Libya will be keen to play ball [cooperate], not just with the EU but with the U.S., which has particular concerns over Libya’s human rights. [Ghaddafi] has, of course, recently announced he will set up a proper court, proper judicial system, and is dismantling the arbitrary emergency powers that have been in place in Libya for some time. Of course at the moment, a lot of that is just rhetoric and the EU and the West will need to see action rather than words on this issue.”

It will be the responsibility of the U.S. and E.U. to insist that Gaddafi follow through with his promises of domestic reforms; otherwise, the current foreign policy successes may prove all too ephemeral.