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Libya in from the Cold

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: May 17, 2006


The preemption doctrine is working. At least, that's what the Bush administration officials say in regard to Libya. Talks aimed at settling disputes between Washington and Tripoli—not least Libya's role in bringing down Pan Am 103 in 1988—had staggered along for years. But the process accelerated after 9/11, and since then the North African nation has carefully maneuvered itself back toward the realm of international acceptance (BBC). Two months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Libya accepted some responsibility for the Pan Am Flight 103 atrocity. Libya's dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, soon after announced he would dismantle his country's chemical and nuclear weapons programs, providing valuable information that helped UN officials close down the black market in nuclear weapons technology (The Atlantic) run by Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan.

Libya is now poised to benefit from its decision to cooperate with Washington (BBC). A May 15 statement from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the resolution to resume full diplomatic relations with Tripoli flows from "the historic decisions taken by Libya's leadership in 2003 to renounce terrorism and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs." It is also the product of some delicate diplomacy, which is outlined by Judith Miller in the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times suggests such direct engagement might work in dealing with other rogues.

The U.S. announcement is quite a reversal, as Libya was a charter member of the State Department's 27-year-old "State Sponsors of Terror" list. President Reagan went so far as to approve the bombing of Qaddafi's home in 1986 after Libyan agents were linked to a Berlin disco bombing that killed U.S. servicemen (BBC).

While fear of attack from the United States may be part of the reason for Libya's new tack, perhaps a more significant factor is a desire for economic prosperity. Martin Indyk points out in the Financial Times that Tripoli offered up its WMD programs as early as 1999. In a 2001 Foreign Affairs article dubbing Libya "The Rogue Who Came in From the Cold," CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh points out that sanctions, not force, have proven most effective at coercing Qaddafi. Another factor is the dictator's son—and by some accounts heir apparent—Saif Qaddafi (GlobalSecurity). A voice of moderation and modernization in Libya, Saif spoke with the BBC in 2004 about plans to modernize the Libyan economy.

Still, Libya took the long way "in from the cold." U.S. ties might have been restored sooner had Qaddafi not been linked to a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (CNN). Freedom House notes that Qaddafi's new tune in the international arena isn't changing human rights abuses at home. International outrage over what some consider the absurd persecution of five Bulgarian nurses (Sofia Echo) imprisoned for years in an alleged plot to spread AIDS in Libya hasn't helped, either. For all these reason, AEI's Michael Rubin cautions, it probably isn't wise to get too cozy (National Review) with Qaddafi even if his oil and tips on proliferation are quite useful.

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