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The Taming of a Pariah

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
June 8, 2006

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In the 2004 vice presidential debate, Dick Cheney sought to underscore the symbolic power of U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Five days after we captured Saddam Hussein," Cheney said, "Muammar Qaddafi in Libya came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all of his nuclear materials." Not everyone agrees with the vice president's analysis; some experts argue it was skilled diplomacy (FT), not the threat of force, that led to Libya's turnaround. Regardless, the Bush administration points to Libya's abandonment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as one of its greatest foreign policy victories and a model for other rogue states. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on May 15 that the United States was removing Libya from the state sponsors of terrorism list and would resume normal diplomatic relations with the one-time pariah, she urged "the leadership of Iran and North Korea to make similar strategic decisions that would benefit their citizens."

As explained in this new Backgrounder, welcoming Libya back into the good graces of the international community was a drawn-out process. For years Libya was among the world's most brazen supporters of terrorism. The worst incident came in 1988 when Libyan agents blew up Pan Am Flight 103 (TIME) over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 people on board. A major step in the country's reconciliation was Libya's agreement to pay reparations to the victims' families and its acceptance, in a letter to the UN Security Council, of responsibility for the attack. Despite its cooperation on WMD and terrorism, Libya has not reformed much domestically. As Andrew Solomon writes in the New Yorker, Qaddafi's regime is far from a democracy and human rights violations are still widespread.

As Judith Miller explains in a two-part Wall Street Journal article, convincing Libya to agree to abandon its WMD programs was just one stage of a larger effort. The subsequent process of dismantling and confiscating Libyan WMD also required considerable diplomatic finesse. The details of Libya's disarmament are described by the Congressional Research Service (PDF).

As foreign policy analysts wrangle over what exactly inspired Libya to cooperate (International Security) (PDF), the country is already maneuvering to become a more important regional producer of oil and gas (LJBC). But just because Libya has diplomatic recognition does not make it a U.S. ally. As one U.S.-based blogger on Libya, Hafed al-Ghwell, writes, "Libya was, is, and will be for a long time to come simply a side show for the U.S. policy makers." The real motives behind Rice's announcement, Ghwell and other analysts suggest, are Iran and North Korea.

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