A message from Tripoli, Part 5: How Libya gave up its WMD

By William Tobey | December 8, 2014

Part 5: The overthrow of Qaddafi and the future of nonproliferation

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a five-part series exploring the painstaking diplomacy and intelligence efforts that led Libya and its quixotic leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, to relinquish that country's weapons of mass destruction. The first, second, third, and fourth parts of the series can be found hereherehere, and here, respectively.

In the immediate aftermath, Libya benefited from its decision to give up its WMD capabilities, although perhaps not as much or as quickly as Qaddafi had hoped. On May 15, 2006, the United States announced it would restore full diplomatic relations with Tripoli. After Libya agreed to provide $2.7 billion in reparations to the families of victims of Pan Am flight 103, Bush removed Libya from his list of state sponsors of terrorism and dropped all economic sanctions. Before the rebellion, foreign investment, particularly in the oil sector, flooded into Libya. In October 2007, Libya was elected to a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council. 

Old habits, however, die hard. Washington was furious after learning in 2004, for example, that Qaddafi’s had attempted the previous year to assassinate Saudi King Abdullah. In August 2009, the release from Scottish prison of a dying former Libyan intelligence agent convicted in the Pan Am 103 case, his enthusiastic welcome in Tripoli, and recriminations over a possible quid pro quo involving British investment in Libya’s oil industry re-opened diplomatic wounds that had barely begun to heal. Qaddafi’s rambling diatribe at the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2009—so long that it caused his interpreter to collapse—suggested that the brother-leader remained as eccentric as ever, even if he was now only conventionally armed.

On October 20, 2011, Muammar Qaddafi was pulled from a ditch during the battle for Sirte and killed by rebels supported by the United States, Britain, and France.  If he feared a fate similar to Saddam’s, he was not far wrong. Yet his decision to renounce his nuclear, chemical, and longer-range missile programs remains remarkable, and is worth examining for lessons to be applied in other proliferation cases. Similarly, it is worth considering the costs to the nonproliferation cause of the decision to depose Qaddafi.

What had tipped the balance? What drove Qaddafi to decide to eliminate his proscribed weapons programs? Could those conditions be replicated elsewhere?  

A consensus on answers to such questions remains elusive. Several Libyans, including Saif Qaddafi, said that after September 11, Libya realized that it faced a new strategic situation that required new policies. “Overnight,” he had told a reporter, “we found ourselves in a different world.”

After 9/11, Qaddafi also anticipated that the United States would enact even tougher new counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation policies. Possessing nuclear weapons programs would become ever more dangerous. “The purpose of WMD is to enhance a nation's security,” Saif explained to the Wall Street Journal in 2006. “But our programs did not do that.”

Saif also attributed the decision to his father’s desire to remove economic sanctions and see Libya reinstated in the international community.

American advocates of engagement argue that Libya validates such an approach with Iran. Former Bush White House staffer-turned-critic Flynt Leverett, who was not privy to the secret negotiations with Libya, argued in 2004 that patient diplomacy reinforced by concessions—not the impending war in Iraq—had prompted Libya to shed its nuclear ambitions. According to Leverett, “Libya was willing to deal because of credible diplomatic representations by Washington over the years which had eventually persuaded Tripoli that WMD disarmament would help it achieve its strategic and domestic goals.” 

To 60 Minutes, Saif Qaddafi also contended that the war in Iraq had not affected Libya’s decision, noting that the negotiations over WMD began before the war started.

Others argue that Libya was far from having a working nuclear weapon and that Qaddafi saw little prospect that his program would succeed. Libya’s woefully inadequate technical and scientific base was a huge obstacle. Libya would have had to master the uranium enrichment process, design and build a weapon, and engineer its integration with a delivery vehicle, either missile or aircraft. 

Then there were sanctions and interdiction efforts. As the diversion of the BBC China showed, Tripoli could not depend on overseas suppliers of nuclear technology. Ever greater scrutiny and more vigorous Allied efforts to stop its nuclear program were inevitable. Libya, moreover, had been forced to rely on relatively expensive and unreliable suppliers in the Khan network and North Korea because it could not gain access to legitimate suppliers in the West.

In all likelihood, this combination of factors weighed heavily on Qaddafi. Although Qaddafi had not often traveled abroad, he reportedly surfed the Internet avidly.  Saif had lived and studied in Europe. Both father and son clearly understood the ruinous costs and political and economic isolation caused by sanctions.

What then were the indispensible elements that brought about change in Libya’s policies, when years of sanctions and international opprobrium had not? Several elements that had not been present earlier came together in 2003.

It seems highly implausible that the war in Iraq had no effect on Qaddafi’s position, given the timing of Qaddafi’s disarmament overtures and his deep concern that even public acknowledgement of his proscribed programs would prompt an American attack. While the message from Tripoli came before the Iraq war’s first shots, most nations had realized for months that war was likely, if not inevitable. Congress had authorized President Bush to use force in October 2002. In November, the UN Security Council found Iraq in material breach of its disarmament obligations and gave Baghdad “a final opportunity” to comply. US forces had been flowing into the region for months.

Shortly before the war in Iraq began, Qaddafi grew increasingly apprehensive.  He called Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, worrying that he would be next on America’s target list. Qaddafi was said to have pleaded with Berlusconi to contact the Americans: “Tell them I will do whatever they want." At least two US congressmen who had spoken to Qaddafi in 2004 said he had made it clear, as one of them put it, that he did not want to “suffer the same plight as Saddam Hussein or his people.”

Good intelligence also played a vital role in the effort’s success. George Tenet, the CIA director, said that accurate intelligence about Libya’s programs and intentions had “moved the Libyans from a stated willingness to renounce WMD to an explicit and public commitment to expose and dismantle their WMD programs.” Credible information about Libya’s WMD programs—so absent in Iraq—enabled the United States to press the Libyans on sensitive weapons-related issues, expose inconsistencies, and convince them that nuclear dissembling was counterproductive.  Not only were the Americans and British effectively playing poker while seeing Libya’s cards, the Libyans themselves gradually understood that most of their cards were visible. Since it was too late to draw new cards, Tenet felt, they folded.

Counter-proliferation programs must also have played a role in Qaddafi’s calculations. As Don Mahley and his expert team saw first-hand, export controls on sensitive material and equipment had complicated Libya’s effort to purchase material for its unconventional weapons programs. By forcing Tripoli to deal with unscrupulous suppliers like Khan’s black market and the regime in Pyongyang, the nonproliferation regime had made Libyans overpay for inferior goods, as Musa Kusa’s comments to Mahley about the “junk” he had bought from North Korea underscored. Similarly, the interdiction of the BBC China must have stunned Qaddafi. No longer could he depend on clandestine supplies from abroad; Western intelligence would be ever more sharply focused on his country’s activities. Despite having spent upward of $200 million on the nuclear project, Qaddafi had little to show. While Matouq Mohamed Matouq, the head of Libya’s nuclear program, expressed confidence that his team could have built a nuclear weapon, Libya’s experience suggested that it would have taken a long time and cost far more than otherwise would have been the case, due to America’s counter-proliferation policies.

Finally, there is ample evidence that Qaddafi decided to abandon his nuclear and chemical weapons programs incrementally, and that at any moment—until the very end of the process—he could have reversed course. His initial message about wanting to “clear the air” was frustratingly vague, and he resisted clarifying it for months. His programs were revealed slowly, over the course of two initial visits, and only more rapidly during the final dismantlement phase. He was prodded toward the inevitable by the BBC China interception and incontrovertible evidence of Libya’s programs. Even Foreign Minister Shalgam’s final announcement of Libya’s decision to give up WMD and Qaddafi’s endorsement of it were cliffhangers.

America’s determination to seek clear evidence of a strategic decision by Qaddafi was also vital. Reinforced by the futile and frustrating experience of Iraq’s failure to comply with UN Security Council mandates during the 1990s, the Bush administration concluded that grudging or half-hearted steps towards disarmament by Libya were unacceptable. Making this clear throughout the secret talks increased pressure on Qaddafi to make a strategic, rather than a tactical decision. 

Libya conveys an even larger lesson.  Because compliance by nation states with international obligations is ultimately voluntary, a government that does not wish to honor its commitments cannot be forced to do so. Leaders can be removed and replaced by more compliant successors, but that should not be confused with compelling compliance from an existing government. The contrast, for example, between Libya and Iran or North Korea could not be starker. Libya fully disclosed its clandestine programs, agreed to their destruction, and destroyed lethal material within a single year. Iran and North Korea, despite years of fitful negotiations, have yet to do any of this. Absent some evidence of a strategic decision on their part to follow a different course, even an apparent breakthrough would have to be viewed with deep suspicion. Ominously for the cause of nonproliferation, dictators may draw the conclusion that despots with nuclear weapons are safe, but those without them will be attacked. The American decision to “lead from behind” in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi may haunt for decades efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.

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