Accessibility links

Breaking News

Libya Changes Its Tune With The United States And The World. - 2004-01-08


The United States and Britain announced in late December that Libya would abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs. Libya’s willingness to give up these banned weapons continues a stunning turnaround that started in the 1990’s. VOA’s Jeff Lilley talked to some analysts about the country’s cooperative attitude and what it may mean for America’s war on terror.

The scene was the White House in Washington. The President of the United States was responding to a recent terrorist attack against American citizens:

"We know that this mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots. He has threatened repeatedly, and recently, that he will bring that kind of warfare to our shores, directly here."

The words sound as if they were uttered yesterday, but they came from President Ronald Reagan 17 years ago. The mad dog of the Middle East was not Osama bin Laden, but Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi

These days, American leaders are praising Mr. Gadhafi. At a recent press conference, President Bush called Mr. Gadhafi’s decision “wise” and “responsible.” So what has changed over the last two decades? Analysts say a combination of realization and resignation has led to Mr. Gadhafi’s remarkable about face.

Former U.S. Ambassador David Mack was a junior Foreign Service officer in Libya when Mr. Ghadafi, then just 27 years old, seized power in a military coup in 1969. “I think what’s happened is that Moammar Ghadafi has matured,” he says. “He is less rash, less impetuous. And I think he realizes that Libya’s destiny is going to require that it completely forswear international terrorism and achieve a more normal relationship with the countries of the region and world.”

“The fundamental or strategic calculation that is guiding policies is the desire to get out from underneath a rogue status,” says Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Combined with that is probably the awareness that past support of terrorists had hugely destabilizing consequences. In the current environment -- post 9/11, post Afghanistan and Iraq -- it carries even higher risks for a country like Libya with its legacy.”

Stephen Morrison says strong diplomatic pressure played a key role in forcing Libya to change its ways. Nearly a decade of United Nations sanctions, along with American bans on trade and investment in Libya, crippled the country’s economy. These penalties came as a result of Libya’s support of terrorist attacks, chiefly its role in planting a bomb on a Pan Am flight which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1989, killing 270 people. By the mid-1990’s, Libyan oil production had plummeted to less than half its level in the 1970’s. Today, unemployment is estimated to run as high as 30%.

In 1999, Libya handed over for trial two suspects in the Pan Am bombing. One was convicted. Then in September 2003, Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion dollars to the families of victims of the bombing. As part of this landmark deal, Libya also agreed to accept responsibility for the bombing and promised to renounce terrorism.

Mr. Gadhafi appears to be casting his lot with globalization. His government is actively seeking foreign investment and is undertaking a massive privatization of the country’s state-owned companies.

Three years ago, long before the Pan Am settlement and the dramatic announcement to give up weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Ghadafi appeared to be preparing his country for a change in direction.

“Europe might not be the source of evil as it was in the past,” Mr. Ghadafi said in a speech on Libya's Independence Day in 2000. “If they are advanced in technology and medicine, they can be useful to us. We welcome that. If there is an American company that wishes to serve the interests of Libya, we welcome that. We ask them to come show us the way in agriculture and industry.”

As part of Libya’s new foreign policy, Mr. Ghadafi is breaking ties with his Arab neighbors, whom he claims have never been very good allies. He says he is going to withdraw Libya from the Arab League, which promotes trade and security cooperation among Arab states. He rebuffs entreaties from members to remain in it.

“I told them it’s a useless organization,” he said in a speech in September 2003. “It doesn’t apply its mutual defense or economic unity, both things we had agreed upon. The Arabs look ridiculous in front of the world, like clowns. Why should we be part of this farce? The Arab League never supported us in times of trouble. So goodbye.”

But analysts who have studied Mr. Gadhafi say he is anything but predictable. They point to the recent discovery of sensitive nuclear equipment on a ship bound for Libya at a time when it was negotiating an end to its nuclear programs with Britain and the United States.

Some analysts say it’s a mistake to engage such a discredited leader, noting his grisly human rights record. Concerned groups say hundreds of Libyans are still in prison because they offended the government in some way. And then there are the people who have disappeared.

Mansour El-Kikhia is a Libyan émigré who teaches at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He says his cousin, who served as Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., hasn’t been heard from since 1993. Mr. El-Kikhia believes Libyan security agents abducted him in Cairo because he was communicating with anti-Ghadafi groups outside Libya.

“He was invited by the Egyptian human rights foundation to talk over there,” he says. “They gave him guarantees he would be safe. I told him not to go, but he nonetheless went, and he met a number of Libyans over there, and that was the last we saw of him. Then we saw individuals who saw him in prison in Libya. The Ghadafi regime until now insists that it has nothing to with the matter, but we actually know people who saw him.”

President Bush has said further cooperation, including lifting the U.S. ban on trade and travel, will depend on Libya clearly abandoning its programs for weapons of mass destruction. To make sure of this, the United States is demanding full and immediate access to Libyan weapons sites. It remains to be seen how forthcoming the mercurial Moammar Ghadafi will really be.

Former diplomat David Mack, who is now vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, says it’s in the U.S. interest to encourage Mr. Ghadafi’s conciliatory moves.

“We are not going to win the war on terrorism,” he says, “until we can show a way for former state supporters of terrorism, such as the Libyan government, to stand on the side of the rest of the international community in dealing with a problem that threatens all of us, including the Libyans. President Bush in his speech after the tragic events of September 11 said governments have to either stand with us or against us. Well, we know what happens when a country doesn’t stand with us, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. How is a government going to show that it can stand with us, particularly a government that has a past as problematic as Libya’s?”

Suggesting that Libya is serious about its recent moves, in early January Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem called on the United States to speed up dismantling of Libya’s illegal weapons programs. That, in turn, could lead to U.S. sanctions being lifted sooner.