Paul Pillar

Engagement and the Libyan Example

An inconvenient case for those who disparage diplomatic engagement with disagreeable regimes--and who argue that the only proper posture toward such regimes is pressure and more pressure, and isolation and more isolation, in the hope of hastening a change of regime--is the breathtaking turnaround by Libya's Muammar Gadhafi.  As part of an agreement reached several years ago with the United States and United Kingdom, Libya abandoned its programs to develop unconventional weapons (and opened up the weapons work it had already done to U.S. and British experts) and became a partner in combating Islamist and other international terrorism, completing a stunning about-face by what had been one of the world's most active and indiscriminate state sponsors of terrorism.  One could hardly imagine a more dramatic success story in getting a troublesome regime to reform in the two areas--terrorism and weapons of mass destruction--that repeatedly are cited as by far the two biggest concerns about such regimes.

So the nothing-but-pressure-and-isolation advocates have had to work hard to spin the Libyan story.  The spin that the administration of George W. Bush applied was to contend that the invasion of Iraq, by making Qadhafi scared that he would be the next target of U.S. military force, was the critical factor behind the Libyan dictator's turnaround.  But this ignored the fact that most of that turnaround had occurred before Operation Iraqi Freedom.  (The secret U.S.-Libyan diplomacy that would lead to the agreement began under the Clinton administration in 1999.)

The latest effort at spinning is in a just-released paper sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where engagement is a dirty word when applied to such rogue states as Iran and Syria.  The paper's author, Dana Moss, does a credible job of recounting the relevant facts about Libyan behavior in recent years, but the paper's "Key Findings" (and WINEP's promotional blurb) are strained attempts to argue that this diplomatic success story shouldn't really put any ideas in anyone's head about how similar diplomacy might be used to good effect with other rogue regimes.  The spinning consists of knocking down a straw man that sees diplomacy as a cure-all, treating diplomatic engagement as if it were conducted in isolation from everything else influencing a regime's behavior, and emphasizing enough of Qadhafi's remaining warts to get the reader to forget just how much the diplomatic breakthrough with the Americans and British accomplished.

Moss says diplomatic engagement is not a "panacea" or a "silver bullet."  Quite true.  Neither is any other tool of statecraft.  He says that "Washington can count on Qadhafi only when U.S. and Libyan interests coincide."  True again--in fact, it's true not only of rogues but also of every other regime, including ones considered allies.  Washington can count on, for example, Israel only when U.S. and Israeli interests (or the interpretation of Israeli interests by whoever is making policy at the moment in Israel) coincide.  Diplomatic engagement is not, per Moss's straw man, a force that can turn conflicting interests into coinciding ones.  Instead, it is an instrument, sometimes an indispensable instrument, for realizing opportunities for turning partially convergent or parallel interests into two nations' mutual benefit, notwithstanding other areas where interests conflict.

Moss takes an opposite chronological tack from the Bush administration's contention about the effect of the Iraq War by arguing that Qadhafi, for his own reasons, began reorienting his policy before U.S. and Libyan diplomats ever met.  That's right in the sense of the Libyan perspectives that made the diplomatic breakthrough possible.  But the fruits of Qadhafi's rethink, including the opening of the WMD programs and the cooperation against radical Islamists, could never have been harvested without the diplomacy and the agreement it produced.  Those fruits were part of the diplomacy and the engagement.  Moreover, if Qadhafi had not achieved the normal relationship with the United States that he sought, he almost certainly would have backslid in the areas where he had already begun to change his policies.

The lesson that Moss propounds is that it is sanctions, not engagement, that works.  No, the lesson is that sanctions and engagement used together work, as in the Libyan case.  Sanctions without engagement--all sticks and hardly anything in the way of carrots--do not work, as they have not worked in the Iranian case, because the sanctioned regime has no reason to believe that its circumstances or relationship with the United States would change even if the behavior that is the ostensible reason for the sanctions changes.

Moss's argument gets most pitifully strained when he says that "true reform requires, at the very least, personnel change" and that "real policy change" in any Libya ruled by Qadhafi will be slow in coming.  "True"?  "Real"?  I thought weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism were most of what we had been worrying about regarding Qadhafi.