Placing the Libya Breakthrough in Perspective

February 4, 2004 Topic: Rogue StatesWeapons InspectionsSecurity

Placing the Libya Breakthrough in Perspective

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's decision to open Libyan weapons of mass destruction sites to international inspection is a welcome development in establishing a region-wide non-proliferation norm.

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's decision to open Libyan weapons of mass destruction sites to international inspection is a welcome development in establishing a region-wide non-proliferation norm.  Yet, President Bush's recent statements suggesting that this development is due to the invasion of Iraq must be placed in a broader perspective.  The Administration claim of victory on this matter overlooks the reality that Qaddafi made his decision as the result of a long process involving the policies of three earlier U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The process of taming Libya began with President Reagan's April 1986 bombing of Tripoli in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin disco.  In this attack, the Libyan defenders performed pathetically, mostly firing their anti-aircraft weapons after the air raid was over.  Later, in 1987, Libya was militarily defeated by Chad (yes, Chad) in series of battles that highlighted the absolute incompetence of the Libyan military. Libyan capabilities have only deteriorated since that time, and with its conventional military a joke, the Libyans sought chemical weapons and other WMD to protect them and deter future attacks. 

Unfortunately for Qaddafi, the centerpiece of his WMD effort, the Rabta chemical plant, was quickly detected by the United States. In the face of almost certain bombing, the Libyans staged a phony fire there in March 1990 and closed the plant down.  Libya's WMD programs remained in place after the Rabta fire but with little prospect for the development of a serious military capability.  Significant WMD progress appeared unlikely due to Libya's lack of a strong technological base and the ongoing effectiveness of United Nations' sanctions supported by the watchful eye of the U.S. intelligence community.  As the danger of U.S.-Libya confrontation continued, the rest of the Arab World looked on with little sympathy for the embarrassing Libyan eccentric. Moreover rumors of coup attempts became standard fare, and Libyan citizens, likewise, appeared fed up with their leader's foreign adventures.

By the early 1990s, Colonel Qaddafi was under crippling sanctions, facing domestic unhappiness and unable to defend his regime from possible Western military strikes.  Facing this reality, the Colonel turned to the only real option that he had left, diplomacy.  In his own bizarre way, he began seeking reconciliation with the post-Reagan U.S. presidents.  Qaddafi referred to the Bush Sr. administration as "experienced and wise" and called Bill Clinton "a man of peace" elected by "blacks, [American] Indians, and the minorities."  He ended ties with terrorists sometime in the early 1990s and eventually turned over two Libyan intelligence agents to international justice for their involvement in the 1988 attack on the PAM AM 103 Flight.  In public speeches, the Colonel asserted that the struggle against imperialism was over because the "satanic" days of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had ended.  As his oil-rich country descended into prolonged sanctions-induced poverty and isolation, he was ready to surrender.

Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton thus prepared the way for an important win by the current administration.  Also important was the vigilance of the U.S. intelligence community which eventually led Qaddafi to believe that his WMD program could only starve for a lack of useful technological imports.  When the current administration rolled him up, Qaddafi was not the same fire-breathing radical he was in 1969 when he came to power.  Rather, he was a broken failure with few other options.  Special gratitude is therefore owed to the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton for maintaining the process that led to this event.  The appreciation of the U.S. should also be directed at the present administration for agreeing to a new start, brokering Qaddafi's surrender, and reaping the intelligence gains that will clearly follow such actions.  Nevertheless, due to the actions of his predecessors, President Bush would probably have been able to do this in absence of an Iraqi invasion.  


W. Andrew Terrill, Ph.D. is a research professor and the Middle East specialist at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.  The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Army, DOD or the U.S. government.