Libyan Expert: Qaddafi, Desperate to End Libya’s Isolation, Sends a ’Gift’ to President Bush

December 22, 2003

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lisa Anderson, a leading specialist on Libya, says that the surprise announcement on December 19 that Libya would renounce its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program was “a deliberate gift,” to President Bush. “The quid pro quo is that the United States lift [economic] sanctions [on Libya]. That’s what they really want.”

Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, says the gesture is consistent with recent behavior by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Libya’s leader, she says, seems desperate to have the country rejoin the family of “civilized nations.”

Anderson was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 22, 2003.

Other Interviews

President Bush announced December 19 that Qaddafi would end efforts to build unconventional weapons and dismantle his country’s WMD program. Is this a major development?

Yes. It’s consistent with a whole set of things the Libyans have been doing for the last couple of years, all of them intended to bring Libya back into the family of what we call “civilized nations.” It’s another significant step along that road.

At one time of course, Libya was a leading renegade state, and after the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, it was more or less isolated. What’s caused this recent change?

One of the things you have to realize is that starting in the mid-1980s, Qaddafi began to face some significant organized opposition at home. And what nobody was paying any attention to, except Qaddafi himself, was the fact that this organized opposition was what we would later come to call an early “Qaeda-type network.” In other words, he began to face opposition from people who were motivated by the international Islamist sentiment, who felt he was too eccentric, too un-Islamic—and if you know anything about his domestic policies, he is certainly eccentric and un-Islamic in that regard. And therefore, he was regarded by the al-Qaeda types as no better than the Saudi government, no better than any of these other governments that they hate. He found himself, ironically, on the same side as all of these governments that he had excoriated for a decade at least.

Over the course of the succeeding 10 to 15 years, he seemed to everyone else in the world to be leading a rogue state, on the wrong side of everything, but he himself was finding that his purposes were increasingly served by aligning with the establishment, with the status-quo regimes, and with his former enemies. All of that crystallized on the morrow of the September 11 attack. He had already begun to try and get himself back in the good graces of everyone by turning over Lockerbie suspects and living with the verdict.

So this was not an overnight conversion. But September 11 really represented the moment where he saw an opportunity, because he heard loud and clear President Bush saying, “If you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” He said to himself, “This is my chance to say, ’I’m with you.’” So, literally on the 12th of September, the head of Libyan intelligence, Musa Kusa, who has also been involved in negotiating on the WMD issues, was meeting in Europe with people from the CIA, saying, “This is our list of suspects. These are the terrorists that we know that are connected to al Qaeda, who are operating out of Europe,” and so forth and so on.

Was this actually on September 12?

Well, maybe it was the 13th. But literally within a couple of days of the September 11 attacks. At that time, the Americans did not realize how serious the Libyans were about getting back in. So the Libyans provided their lists and started cooperating in very serious ways. The irony, of course, was that the Bush administration was publicly castigating various countries, but it was getting some of its best intelligence from one of them. There was a very odd kind of tension in trying to figure out what to do about Libya and how serious to take [its overtures.] Was this intelligence really as good as it seemed to be? Was this an indication of a serious change of heart by the Libyans or was it one more eccentric thing that Qaddafi might back out of?

Very few people knew about this?

Yes. Only a very few people knew about it. But interestingly, if you go back to the fall of 2001, there were reports emanating from the Libyan side, because they wanted everyone to know that they were cooperating and were “good guys.” They wanted to stay off what became the “axis of evil” list and they succeeded in that. It was a subtle thing. The Libyans leaked to the press that they were cooperating, which is pretty funny when you think about it. The Americans were less happy to announce that because Libya was still a regime they felt they could not trust, for various reasons. But there was a continuing conversation. The Libyans agreed to the compensation for the Lockerbie families, which led to the lifting of United Nations sanctions, with the Libyans saying, “Okay, we’ll pay whatever it takes to get the Lockerbie families off the American political agenda.” They’ve been doing almost anything that anyone has asked them to do to get back into this new division of the world between “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” They are now absolutely core, as far as their own interests are concerned, on the “good guys” side.

Did most people know that the Libyans were dabbling in chemical, biological, and nuclear arms programs?

Pretty much everyone knew it. What nobody could tell, and which is not clear even now, was how far along they had gotten, how good they were, and whether any of this stuff was real. A lot of the WMD activity, as far as I could tell, was amateurish. But, in a sense, it does not matter. Even if they never got to a point at which they were producing very much [unconventional weaponry] or could deliver it anywhere, you would still want them to stop. I think it is also true that they never got very sophisticated at it, in part because if you look at the economy of a place like Libya, there is not much sophistication in it.

When the United States bombed Libya in 1986, didn’t the United States also bomb a chemical factory?

Actually, at that time we did not. But we did subsequently bomb what we believed was a chemical weapons facility.

I’ve always associated Qaddafi with pan-Arabism.

There are different layers of “pan-ism” in that neck of the woods. Qaddafi came to power as a pan-Arabist on the model of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was his hero. He thought that the solution to all the problems in the region was to have one single Arab country and he was willing, as long as Nasser was alive, to say that Nasser could be the head of that country. Once Nasser died in 1970 and Qaddafi started to realize that many of the other regimes were much more ordinary, run-of-the-mill regimes, and not revolutionary, he was very much alienated from Arab nationalism.

So it has been a long time since anyone accorded him much credibility as an Arab nationalist. But he was also the leader of the first Islamist regime, and this is why he has gotten into so much trouble in terms of the shifting sands of the region. He came to power in 1969, 10 years before the Iranian revolution, and in those 10 years he was the first to talk about Islam in power. When the Iranian revolution occurred, he was outflanked quite dramatically in terms of Islamic power. Partly as the result of that, Qaddafi’s pronouncements on Islam became so eccentric as to become heretical. [In response] an Islamist opposition arose in Libya that was quite orthodox. By the mid-1980s, Qaddafi was facing a very significant Islamist opposition but, again, most people did not notice that because they thought of him still as either so eccentric as to have no perspective or as still in a desperate and serious competition with the Saudis for influence in the Muslim world. Through much of the late 1970s and through the 1980s, the Saudis and the Libyans were in this almost laughable competition building mosques all over Africa to export their own versions of Islam. But the Libyans ducked out of that competition. They had abandoned both pan-Arabism and their pan-Islamist position. Qaddafi for the last decade at least, has thought of himself more as an African leader than an Arab or Islamist leader. That’s partly a reflection of his disenchantment with Arab nationalism and pan-Islamist politics.

Al Qaeda is no friend of Libya, obviously.

Certainly. They think Qaddafi is as much of a problem as the Algerian regime, or the Saudi regime, or any of these other regimes. As much as these regimes hate each other now, and there has been little love lost among the Algerians and Libyans and Saudis in the last 25 years, all know they face a common enemy, al Qaeda. They all want to be on the same side.

I’m still trying to understand why Libya was so radical in the 1980s. It bombed a discotheque in Berlin, killing two U.S. soldiers. That precipitated the bombing of Libya ordered by President Reagan in 1986. That, it seems, led to retaliation in the form of the Lockerbie disaster.

I think, as with Lockerbie, when our grandchildren write the history of this period, it will not be clear that it is going to be best explained in terms of state politics. We have no better way of saying who was responsible for Lockerbie than to trace it back to some state. In this case, Libya. But in fact, there was probably a much more amorphous set of actors in all this who were trying to see if they could lift a corner on the dominance of the West and needle everybody. We see it as Libyan, but I think there was a piece of Syria involved in that. There were others involved also. In any event, partly because of the way we look at the world, partly because of Qaddafi’s willingness to be out front, we saw him as the leader of all [the anti-Western movement].

Will Libyan-U.S. relations be normalized?

That’s certainly what the Libyans want. The real question is how comfortable the Bush administration is going to be in saying that it believes the Libyans have turned over a new leaf and that somebody who had been excoriated for decades could turn out to be somebody we can deal with on a normal basis. It’s worth keeping in mind—and this is one of the little known facts that explains a fair amount—that the prime minister of Libya right now, Shukri Ghanem, is a graduate of an American professional school, 25 years ago, and spent most of the intervening period as Libya’s representative to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and living in Europe. He and I went to school together at the Fletcher School at Tufts [University]. Qaddafi is appointing the people who are going to be the most plausible, most sophisticated kinds of people to renew this relationship. He’s giving this everything he has.

Is he trying to leave a legacy?

I think he is trying to avoid leaving a legacy of complete chaos. At this point, if he were overthrown, Libya would be in just awful shape. And if he were overthrown, the only plausible organizer of a successor regime would be probably a very underground and disorganized Islamist opposition. A peaceful transition, á la Syria or something like that, is not in the cards, unless Qaddafi opens up the country and gets more help from Europeans and even the United States in getting that economy, if not necessarily going, at least righted. And the Libyans know they have given President Bush a gift, a deliberate gift [by abandoning WMD]. The quid pro quo is that the United States lift sanctions. That’s what they really want.

What’s holding up the lifting of sanctions? What does the United States want to see happen?

There were a number of things that had to happen. One was that the Lockerbie families had to be satisfied. They had been one of the most vocal and active lobbying groups against any kind of normalization. Now, that appears to be removed as an obstacle. There may be two or three families not satisfied, but basically the families have agreed that they will accept compensation, some $10 million a family. The only other big thing was the WMD. And that’s coming off the table. The administration wants to “wait and see,” but basically all the obstacles have now been removed by the Libyan regime. Something has to happen as a face-saving gesture so that even though we have been saying for the past 25 years that we will never have good relations with this country so long as this person is in power, we are now willing to change our minds. That’s hard. That’s a PR problem. The United States might well decide to deal more directly with the technocrats like Shukri Ghanem, and say, “We are really dealing with the prime minister, that Qaddafi is the titular head of state, but there is a regular government, and that’s whom we are dealing with.”