From the Shores of Tripoli

May 1, 2007 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation

From the Shores of Tripoli

Mini Teaser: The story of how Libya disarmed—and the lessons not learned for North Korea and Iran.

by Author(s): Judith Miller

THE BUSH Administration can point to only one undeniable non-proliferation "success" so far in its tenure: Libya's decision to renounce WMD in December 2003. But the administration that so adroitly pushed Libya to abandon unconventional weapons has been unable, or in some cases unwilling, to apply the key lessons of that success to its other nuclear challenges.

THE RECORD now clearly shows that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's eccentric long-time ruler, did not rush into nuclear disarmament primarily because of America's invasion of Iraq. Qaddafi first signaled his willingness to discuss his unconventional-weapons programs soon after the Soviet Union's collapse, as early as 1992. But Washington, under Democrats and Republicans alike, refused to deal given his monstrous record on terrorism. The feelers to the Clinton Administration went nowhere because they preceded Qaddafi's surrender of two Libyan operatives suspected of blowing up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 259 (mostly American) passengers and crew had died. Ultimately, Qaddafi agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of Lockerbie victims-$10 million per victim-and millions more to compensate families of earlier victims of terrorist attacks. He also accepted responsibility for terrorist acts committed by two Libyan intelligence officers while continuing to deny his own perfectly obvious complicity in the crime. By then, however, the Clinton Administration had left office.

Isolated and largely ignored, Qaddafi grew alarmed by the incoming Bush Administration's new counter-proliferation agenda and the growing visibility of such militant Islamic groups at home as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Sensing the prevailing political winds, Qaddafi was among the first to condemn the September 11 attacks. Through intelligence channels, Libya gave the administration a list of potential suspects, including Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who was subsequently arrested in Pakistan and turned out to be a key Al-Qaeda operative. Qaddafi also delivered a golden non-proliferation nugget: A group in Pakistan close to A. Q. Khan had offered to sell Libya nuclear material. This was evidence of Pakistan's dangerous nuclear network as well as Libya's nuclear program, both of which U.S. intelligence services could not previously verify. Washington would never have confirmed either without the U.S.-Libyan dialogue, ostensibly limited to terrorism.

Qaddafi again signaled a desire to "clarify" allegations about his unconventional-weapons programs in August 2002, seven months before the Iraq invasion. Tony Blair mentioned Qaddafi's proposal to President Bush when the two leaders met at Camp David in September 2002. Despite the focus on Iraq, Bush agreed to explore Qaddafi's avowed interest in swapping WMD for sanctions relief. In October 2002, Blair wrote to Qaddafi proposing a dialogue.

Just days before the start of the Iraq War, Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi's favored son, and senior Libyan intelligence officials contacted the British, who told the Americans that Qaddafi wanted to "clear the air" about WMD programs in return for assurances that Washington would not try to topple his regime.

While Saif al-Islam rejected the administration's argument that his father had been frightened into abandoning WMD by the Iraq War, he acknowledged that the timing of Libya's overture was affected by the invasion. "I saw WMD as a card in our hands", he told me last spring. The March 2003 invasion of Iraq was "the best time to play that card", he said.

Though initially skeptical, the administration limited details of the half-dozen secret meetings over the next seven months in London, Geneva and Tripoli to a handful of senior U.S. officials to prevent leaks and bureaucratic sabotage by neoconservatives and other opponents of normalizing relations.

The Iraq War, having initially prompted Qaddafi to act on the WMD issue, almost derailed Libya's renunciation later on. For as American forces became bogged down in Iraq, Qaddafi's desire to give up his WMD programs waned. By October 2003, Libya had yet to acknowledge that it even possessed banned weapons and programs. And while the Libyans had agreed in principle to let a team of US-UK weapons experts visit various suspect sites in Libya, no date for such a visit had been set.

The diplomatic lull ended with the October 2003 interdiction off Italy of the BBC China, a German ship the Americans had been tracking for nearly a year. Among the ship's contents were thousands of centrifuge parts to enrich uranium from the Khan network.

Libya, which had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had not reported the purchases to the un as required. But rather than proclaim Libya's cheating to the world, as the Bush Administration did when North Korea was caught cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework, the administration quietly informed the Libyans of the interdiction. A stunned Qaddafi quickly extended the long-promised invitation to British and American experts to tour suspect sites.

Intelligence also played a pivotal role the following month when Stephen Kappes, who headed the small CIA team handling Libyan disarmament, gave Libya a compact disc of conversations that American intelligence agencies had secretly intercepted. Libyans confirmed that the disc contained a discussion on February 28, 2002, about Libya's nuclear-weapons quest between the then-head of Libya's secret nuclear effort and A. Q. Khan, Libya's long-time supplier. So Libya could not convincingly deny the program's military intent-as Iran has tried to do with its program.

While experts still debate whether and when Libya could actually have made a bomb, a leading State Department analyst said that had the centrifuges been properly assembled in cascades-always dicey in such a technologically challenged state-Libyans could theoretically have produced enough fuel for several nuclear warheads.

Libya had wanted explicit quid pro quos-that in exchange for its renunciation of WMD, the Americans would abandon any effort to foment regime change in Libya, ensure that sanctions were lifted and remove Tripoli from the list of sponsors of terrorism, so diplomatic relations could be restored. But the White House, unwilling to set a precedent and knowing that Libya and the United States still had other differences on Lockerbie and human rights to resolve, refused to deal.

Libya's announcement, by the foreign minister, not Qaddafi, that it was renouncing its efforts to acquire WMD finally came on December 19, following three days of secret, high-level policy talks in London.

IN LIGHT of this history, several lessons for non-proliferation emerge. The first is that persuading rogue leaders to re-evaluate whether such weapons programs are in their countries' best interest is tough, tenuous and time-consuming. It requires ingenuity, patience, persistence, a steady diplomatic and policy hand, and finally, follow-up-the last of which has not been the Bush Administration's forte. In non-proliferation, foreign-policy priority and continuity of effort, if not approach, are key. Hence, with respect to Libya, for instance, neither Republicans nor Democrats could afford to give non-proliferation greater political priority than bringing the Lockerbie suspects to justice and winning compensation for the victims' families. Once that issue was resolved, however, priority was placed on disarming Libya of unconventional weapons. The effort to do so spanned two administrations with diametrically divergent views on how best to persuade countries to disarm.

Furthermore, Libya shows that sanctions can work-over time. Team members said they were struck by the extent to which targeted multilateral sanctions had complicated Libya's hunt for unconventional weapons. Sanctions, for instance, led a Finnish firm and the now-defunct Daewoo of South Korea to decline Libyan offers in 1985 to build a medical laboratory in Libya that would have had the capacity to handle the most dangerous germs. Sanctions also forced Libya to import shoddy components at exorbitant prices, i.e., four different systems to fill their white plastic bottles with mustard agent, none of which worked. Finally, sanctions worked because they were aimed not at starving Libyans, but at isolating its leadership and the privileged-through a ban on flights, for instance-and on denying technology to the country's oil sector. The shortage of sophisticated drilling and exploration equipment meant that Libya fell far behind other Middle Eastern producers, despite its vast reserves of sweet and light crude, which in turn produced a relative budget crunch for the spendthrift colonel. John Parks, a research associate at Harvard who studies non-proliferation models, called sanctions against Libya a financial "surgical strike."

However, lesson number three is that although sanctions made acquisition more expensive and time-consuming and prompted Libya to abandon its bio-weapons effort, they did not stop its nuclear or chemical programs. Instead, Libyans turned to one-stop shops like the Khan network for nuclear materials and to improvisation for chemical weapons. Thus, countries must be persuaded that WMD are not in their national interest, unless Washington is willing and able, unilaterally or multilaterally, through economic or military pressure, to topple a regime. The perils of the latter approach are all too obvious in our disastrous misadventure in Iraq.

Fourth, in addition to sanctions, export-control regimes also helped dissuade suppliers from providing dual-use equipment to Libya and probably to other rogue states. The Nuclear Suppliers Group-which monitors sales of dual-use nuclear materials-and the Australia Group-which does the same with chemical and biological materials-made it harder and more costly for Libya, North Korea and Iran to buy components that are on the groups' lists of sensitive equipment. As a result, states seeking such capabilities must develop sophisticated procurement networks to acquire the materials and expertise they need to make such unconventional weapons.

Essay Types: Essay