The Libya Lesson
The Libya Lesson
Wall Street Journal
May 17, 2006;
The Libyan dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi, now in its 37th year, is a nasty
thing to behold. It has sponsored terrorists, waged wars on its neighbors,
blown up German discos and U.S. commercial jetliners and held foreigners for
ransom. It continues to repress its people and imprison, torture and murder
its political dissidents.
Yet one need not be under any illusions about the nature of Mr. Gadhafi's
regime to agree with the Bush Administration's decision this week to resume
full diplomatic ties with Libya after a 27-year suspension. Championing
human rights and democracy is a vital American interest. Reversing the
spread of nuclear weapons among rogue regimes is equally vital. The
difference is that the former set of interests is easier to advance without
the sound of an atomic clock ticking in the background.
The story of how Mr. Gadhafi acquired and later abandoned his nuclear
capabilities is reported nearby by Judith Miller. By 2003, Libya was in
possession of 4,000 advanced uranium centrifuges and sufficient quantities
of highly enriched uranium to make a 10-kiloton bomb, or nearly the yield of
Hiroshima's "Little Boy." This is vastly more advanced than what Iran
is suspected of possessing, not to mention what was ultimately discovered about
Saddam's WMD programs.
What changed Mr. Gadhafi's mind? A decade of international sanctions had an
effect. A more proximate cause was Mr. Gadhafi's belief, following the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001, that he was next. And when U.S. troops
began deploying in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq, Ms. Miller reports,
Mr. Gadhafi phoned Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to pass this
message to the White House: "Tell them I will do whatever they want."
But the decisive factor was Mr. Gadhafi's belief that his best hope of
escaping the American onslaught was to abandon his nuclear dreams. "The
purpose of WMD is to enhance a nation's security," Mr. Gadhafi's son Saif
told Ms. Miller. "But our programs did not do that."
Had Mr. Gadhafi persevered, he may have had a functional weapon this year,
or in 2008 at the latest, according to the head of the Libyan weapons
program. Preventing that would have required a showdown with Libya akin to
the present showdown with Tehran. Ultimately, the administration might have
had no choice but to invade. It seems to us, however, that American
interests are better served by deploying diplomats to the shores of Tripoli
than cruise missiles and GIs.
Critics of the deal point out that by extending full diplomatic ties, the
Administration has foregone leverage it might have had to win the release of
political prisoners: "There is nothing left to bargain with," Mohamed
Eljahmi, brother of imprisoned dissident Fathi Eljahmi, told the New York
Sun yesterday. But there is no reason the U.S. cannot continue to insist on
the release of Mr. Eljahmi and other prisoners from the embassy in Tripoli.
Other critics argue that the resumption of ties is tantamount to forgiving
Libya for the Pan Am 103 bombing. Of course Libya cannot be forgiven. But it
has been made to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the victims' families,
or $10 million per family. In 2004, relatives of 230 of these victims signed
a letter to Mr. Bush urging the lifting of sanctions.
Normalizing ties with Libya does not require the U.S. to be friends with
Libya or abandon Mr. Eljahmi. But it does give the Administration a chance
to show that it is willing to co-exist with cruel and unsightly regimes so
long as they meet a threshold of global respectability: no WMD; no
sponsorship of terrorism; no threatening of their neighbors. Libya has now
come in from the cold. We can only hope that the despots of Tehran and
Pyongyang have the wisdom -- and the incentives -- to do so as well.