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Libya and the United States: a Faustian pact?

After a promising start, the rapprochement between the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and the United States may be reaching its limits. The Bush administration's July 2007 nomination of a new ambassador to Libya, the first since 1972, was a positive move, but a congressional block on his confirmation, coupled with a related hold on funds for a new embassy in Tripoli, have stymied real progress. Administration officials argue that both sides have already achieved essentially what they want from the new relationship, blaming the present stalemate on Libya. On the contrary, an assessment of the American-Libyan relationship, as it unfolded over the last decade, would suggest there is plenty of blame on both sides. More important, it highlights how much both states have to gain from a broader, deeper relationship.


After years of stonewalling, Libya in April 1999 remanded into UN custody the two suspects in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the United States began to rethink its policy toward Libya. In congressional testimony in July 1999, Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, deputy assistant secretary for Near East and South Asian Affairs, emphasized that the United States expected "Libya to fulfill all of its UN Security Council requirements, including an end to support for terrorist activities, acknowledgment of its responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials, cooperation with the [Lockerbie] trial, and payment of appropriate compensation." (1) Four months later, in a November 1999 address at the Middle East Institute, Neumann recognized Libya's "declining support for terrorism" and acknowledged the "positive steps" taken by the Qaddafi regime. After repeating the American goals for Libya outlined in July, Neumann added that there were other sources of contention in the bilateral relationship, specifically "Libyan efforts to obtain missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)." (2) In congressional testimony in May 2000, Neumann added regional intervention to the list of U.S. concerns.
 U.S. policy and policy goals vis-a-vis
 Libya have remained consistent
 through three administrations. Our
 goals have been to end Libyan
 support for terrorism, prevent
 Tripoli's ability to obtain weapons of
 mass destruction, and contain
 Qadhafi's regional ambitions. Since
 Lockerbie, we have added additional
 aims, including bringing the persons
 responsible to justice. (3)

In concluding his testimony, Neumann stressed that the goal of the United States was one of deterring Libyan policies of concern, and that an improvement in the American-Libyan bilateral relationship was not an end in itself.

As the public diplomacy played out, the Clinton administration in mid-1999 opened secret talks with Libya, negotiations with a carefully defined agenda. Once the two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing were remanded into UN custody, the United Nations had suspended, but not lifted, its sanctions. U.S. diplomacy at this point aimed to maintain the UN sanctions in place until Libya complied fully with all aspects of three UN Security Council resolutions--Resolution 731 (January 1992) called on Libya to extradite the two suspects in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103; Resolution 748 (March 1992) imposed some sanctions on Libya, including a ban on Libyan aircraft flights; and Resolution 883 (November 1993) banned the sale of oil equipment to Libya and placed a limited freeze on Libyan foreign assets. Full compliance with these resolutions called for Libya to end support for terrorism, accept responsibility for the acts of Libyan officials, and compensate the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Ambassador Martin Indyk, the assistant secretary of state who opened the 1999 talks with Libya, later indicated the talks began only after Libya also agreed to keep the negotiations quiet and to cease lobbying the UN to permanently lift the multilateral sanctions regime. (4)

At the first session of the secret talks, held in Geneva in May 1999, the Libyans openly recognized a common threat from Islamist fundamentalism and agreed to cooperate actively in fighting al-Qaeda. Regarding unconventional weapons, the United States was most concerned with Libyan production of chemical weapons; however, when the Libyans offered to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and open their facilities to inspection, the United States elected not to pursue the issue at that time. According to Indyk, Washington did not believe Libya's unconventional-weapons programs posed an immediate threat; therefore, the top priorities of the United States remained getting Libya out of the terrorism business and securing compensation for the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Once these goals were met and the UN sanctions were lifted permanently, Indyk told his Libyan counterparts that U.S. bilateral sanctions would remain in place until the unconventional-weapons issue was resolved. (5)

The secret bilateral negotiations initiated by the Clinton administration in mid-1999 were later suspended in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election out of fear they might become public knowledge and cause a scandal. One of the last acts of the outgoing Clinton administration was to continue the state of emergency with Libya declared by President Reagan in January 1986. Reflecting the goals of the suspended talks, the December 1999 announcement read in part that the United States still had concerns about Libyan support for terrorism and its noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions 731, 748, and 883. (6)

Throughout the 1990s, Libya had expressed an interest in bilateral talks with the United States aimed at a full restoration of commercial and diplomatic relations. Libya also had expressed a willingness to put any and all issues on the table; however, when the United States finally initiated bilateral talks in May 1999, it limited them to two subjects, terrorism and compensation for the families of the victims of Pan Am flight 103. Over time, Ambassador Neumann and other American officials added weapons of mass destruction and Libyan regional policies to the list of U.S. concerns, but there was no indication throughout this period that the United States placed any priority on issues like democratic reform and the promotion of human rights, later assigned importance.


On January 31, 2001, after a 12-year investigation and an 84-day trial that cost an estimated $106 million, three Scottish judges sitting in a special court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands found Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, one of the two Libyan defendants in the Lockerbie case, guilty in the attack on Pan Am flight 103. Even though the Libyans continued to proclaim his innocence, the guilty verdict, combined with a March 2002 appellate-court ruling that upheld the verdict, brought an element of closure to the case. At the same time, some family members of the victims, as well as others, continued to feel the Qaddafi regime likely orchestrated the attack. Other family members questioned Libyan involvement in the attack in general and Megrahi's guilt in particular.

The guilty verdict prompted President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to issue a joint statement in February 2001 calling on Libya to comply with all outstanding UN Security Council resolutions. Tripartite talks at the United Nations among American, British and Libyan officials actually opened the month before, detailing the steps Libya had to take to terminate UN sanctions. According to Flynt Leverett, a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff at the time, these talks generated a "script" that told Libya exactly what it must do to satisfy the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and to accept responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials implicated in the attack. Once Libya fulfilled these requirements, Great Britain and the United States agreed, in an explicit quid pro quo, to allow the UN sanctions to be lifted permanently. (8)

Responding immediately to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Qaddafi was an enthusiastic early recruit to the war on terror, condemning the attacks and expressing sympathy for the victims. Following the attacks, American and British officials conducted lengthy information-sharing sessions with their counterparts in the Libyan intelligence community. In October 2002, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahman Chalgam confirmed that Libyan officials had met with their American counterparts on several occasions after January 2001. In January 2003, Saifal-Islam al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's eldest son by his second wife and his heir apparent, stressed that Libya was doing its part in supporting the Bush administration in the war on terror. Ten days later, Libyan leader Qaddafi confirmed that Libya was sharing information on al-Qaeda with Western intelligence agencies, repeating the point in a March 2004 Newsweek interview. (9) Qaddafi also published a rambling essay on his website in which he criticized states that had not joined in fighting the war on terror:
 The phenomenon of terrorism is
 not a matter of concern to the U.S.
 alone. It is the concern of the whole
 world. The U.S. cannot combat it
 alone. It is not logical, reasonable or
 productive to entrust this task to the
 U.S. alone. It requires international
 cooperation and joint action on the
 world level. (10)

Libyan cooperation in the war on terror was due largely to the fact that many of the Islamist organizations now targeting the White House were the same or similar to those that had threatened the Qaddafi regime throughout the 1990s. Long a target of Islamist radicals, Qaddafi post-9/11 freely shared intelligence on alleged allies of Osama bin Laden, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a shadowy force that first surfaced in Libya in 1995. In January 2002, Libya launched a website, offering a $1 million reward for information about regime opponents with ties to Islamist movements. Symptomatic of the new level of cooperation between Libya and the United States, the Bush administration designated the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group a terrorist organization in its Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003 report on the grounds the group opposed the United States as well as Libya. (11)

Having long considered the Lockerbie trial to be far from fair and proper and the convicted Libyan, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, to be innocent, Libya in August 2003 accepted responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials in the Pan Am 103 bombing and agreed to pay the families of the 270 victims $2.7 billion in compensation. Each family was to receive $10 million in three separate payments tied to a negotiated timetable with mutually agreed upon benchmarks. The settlement called for a payment of $4 million for each victim when the UN sanctions were lifted permanently, another $4 million when the U.S. sanctions were lifted, and the final $2 million when the United States removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. On September 12, 2003, the UN Security Council lifted permanently the multilateral sanctions imposed in 1992, triggering the first $4 million payment. (12)

Welcoming what appeared to be a final resolution of the Lockerbie issue, the Bush administration took a different tack from that of the Security Council, announcing that U.S. sanctions would remain in place until Libya addressed additional concerns underlying those measures. The concerns highlighted by Secretary of State Colin S. Powell and other American officials included Libya's poor human-rights record and lack of democratic institutions, destructive role in perpetuating regional conflicts in Africa, and pursuit of unconventional weapons and related delivery systems. (13) Of these three concerns, only the pursuit of unconventional weapons figured in the original U.S. rationale for imposing bilateral sanctions on Libya. On the contrary, American officials over the previous decade had studiously avoided raising the human-rights and democracy issues and, to a lesser extent, Libyan regional policies, focusing instead on the resolution of the Lockerbie affair, with the issue of unconventional weapons a secondary concern.

Slow Rehabilitation

In March 2003, Libyan officials approached the British government in an overture that led to trilateral talks with the United Kingdom and the United States aimed at dismantling Libya's unconventional weapons programs. Over the next nine months, a series of meetings took place in London under the sponsorship of the British government. Similar in format to the Lockerbie negotiations, these talks were structured around an explicit quid pro quo. In return for Libya's verifiable dismantlement of its unconventional weapons programs, the United States was prepared to lift its bilateral sanctions, perhaps by the end of 2004. (14) As for related concerns, no evidence surfaced during or after the trilateral talks to suggest that other issues, like democratic reforms or the improvement of human rights, were part of the negotiations.

The London talks were conducted in the utmost secrecy; however, indications of progress began to surface in the fall of 2003. In an October 2003 interview with the author at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, Saifal-Islam al-Qaddafi emphasized Libya's desire to rejoin the international community, suggesting his government would soon be making an important announcement in this regard. Eventually, on December 19, 2003, Foreign Minister Chalgam announced that Libya had decided of its own "free will" to be completely free of internationally banned weapons and associated delivery systems and to do so in a transparent manner under the observation of international inspectors. In a public statement in support of the decision, Qaddafi later called for all nations to abandon nuclear weapons. (15)

In response to the Libyan decision to renounce unconventional weapons and related delivery systems, President Bush held a press conference in which he praised the Libyan decision but strongly suggested the Qaddafi regime would have to do more to achieve full relations with the United States:
 With today's announcement by its
 leader, Libya has begun the process of
 rejoining the community of nations.
 And Colonel Ghadafi knows the way
 forward. Libya should carry out the
 commitments announced today. Libya
 should also fully engage in the war
 against terror. Its government, in
 response to the United Nations
 Security Council Lockerbie demands,
 has already renounced all acts of
 terrorism and pledged cooperation in
 the international fight against terrorism.
 We expect Libya to meet these
 commitments, as well. (16)

In his statement, President Bush mentioned internal reform in passing; however, in light of subsequent events, it should be noted that he did not suggest that democratic reforms or increased respect for human rights were either issues that were part of the 2003 negotiations or issues that could impede the restoration of full commercial and diplomatic relations with the United States.

In the spring of 2004, the Bush administration began to lift the complex package of bilateral sanctions gradually put in place over the previous three decades, expanding at a measured pace commercial and diplomatic ties with Libya. On February 26, 2004, the United States lifted the travel ban and two months later announced an easing of economic sanctions. On June 28, 2004, the United States opened a U.S. Liaison Office in Tripoli, restoring direct diplomatic ties severed in 1980, when the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was shuttered. On September 20, 2004, President Bush ended the national emergency with Libya, in effect lifting most of the remaining trade and travel sanctions and releasing $1.3 billion in frozen Libyan assets. At that point, the only commercial sanctions still in place were certain export restrictions related to Libya's retention on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Because of specified dual-use concerns, these export controls made it difficult to ship certain types of oil-field equipment to Libya's hydrocarbon industry. (17)

As the United States moved to make good on its pledge to lift bilateral sanctions and to restore full diplomatic relations, unexpected events transpired that had long-term consequences for the emerging rapprochement. In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan announcement that it had decided of its own "free will" to be free of unconventional weapons, the White House began to portray the Libyan decision as a byproduct of its preemptive strike strategy in Iraq. In his State of the Union address, President Bush suggested the Libyan decision was a product, not of patient diplomacy, but of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and senior administration officials dwelled on the same false claim throughout the spring. The Bush administration's deliberate distortion of events embarrassed the Qaddafi regime, already under criticism throughout the Arab world for seeming to kowtow to the United States, and undermined the limited confidence and good will that had developed during the Lockerbie negotiations and the London talks. Adding insult to injury, the Bush administration in mid-March 2004 put components of the unconventional weapons it had recently dismantled in Libya on display at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in what journalists rightly characterized as a "dog and pony show." Administration officials denied the display was intended to embarrass the Libyans, but it most certainly had that effect. (18)

In the interim, the thaw in bilateral relations came to an abrupt halt when Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, a man known for his candor, suggested in late February 2004 that Libya was not responsible for the Lockerbie bombing and other major acts of terrorism, even though it had accepted responsibility for the acts of Libyan officials and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims. In a BBC Radio interview, the prime minister stated, "we thought it was easier to buy peace" with the United Kingdom and the United States, which is why "we agreed to compensation" in the Lockerbie case. While other Libyan officials, including Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, had made similar statements in the past, arguing Megrahi was innocent, the Bush administration demanded a retraction. The Libyan government later dissociated itself from the prime minister's remarks in a carefully crafted statement that said Libya had "met all of the requirements of the UN Security Council regarding PanAm 103," in that it had "facilitated the bringing to justice of the two suspects charged with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and accepts responsibility for the actions of its officials." While the incident was widely dismissed as a tempest in a teacup, Prime Minister Ghanem had successfully reintroduced an issue--almost surely with the prior knowledge if not the direction of officials at the highest level of the Libyan government--that the Bush administration believed had been resolved; it remains an issue that bedevils bilateral relations to the present day. (19)

At the same time, Libyan officials continued to deny that the downfall of Saddam Hussein had any impact on their decision to renounce unconventional weapons and related delivery systems. In a speech to the General People's Congress in early March 2004, Qaddafi argued that changed world circumstances had made weapons of mass destruction irrelevant to Libyan policy, and in the short Newsweek interview published two weeks later, he said the process leading to disarmament had begun "a long time before the problem of Iraq and before the invasion of Iraq." In a mid-March 2004 interview, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi was more explicit, suggesting that Libya renounced unconventional weapons in response to promised cultural, economic, military and political gains from the West, as well as because the weapons represented a danger to Libya and were no longer a factor in Libyan policy toward Israel. (20)

In mid-November 2004, the Bush administration asked Congress to lift the U.S. ban on export-import loans to Libya, arguing that the action would facilitate American investment. In January 2005, the Libyan government, in the first in a series of new tenders for exploration and production-sharing agreements (EPSA-4), awarded 11 of 15 contracts to American oil companies, operating alone or in partnership with other companies. In February 2005, the United States lifted travel restrictions on Libyan diplomats, allowing them to move freely about the country, and in the summer of 2005, the Bush administration announced a plan to establish military relations with Libya. Later in the year, Qaddafi invited President Bush to visit Libya. In May 2006, Libya was finally removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, ending sanctions the United States had begun to impose on Libya as far back as the Carter administration. (21)


According to Flynt Leverett, the trilateral talks in London in 2003 were structured around a quid pro quo in which the United States was prepared to lift its sanctions on Libya, perhaps by the end of 2004, in return for the verifiable dismantlement of Libyan unconventional weapons programs. Instead of the proffered 12 months, it took Washington almost 30 months to make good on its promise to lift the sanctions. The Lockerbie settlement was a direct casualty of the slow and deliberate process followed by the United States. When President Bush ended the national emergency with Libya on September 21, 2004, the Libyans had made the second payout of $4 million to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. However, frustrated with the American failure to remove it from the terrorism list, Libya in February 2005, having granted several extensions to the final payment of $2 million per family, balked at granting more. In early April 2005, it withdrew the unpaid amount of $540 million from an escrow account at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), arguing it was no longer legally obligated to make the third payment because the agreement calling for the payments had expired. (22)

Among others, lawmakers from New Jersey and New York, home to many of those who died in the Lockerbie disaster, were especially supportive of the families of the victims. They threatened to block any improvement in American-Libyan relations until the families had received full restitution. When the Bush administration requested $115.9 million to build an embassy in Tripoli and an additional $1.15 million in aid to normalize relations, the House Appropriations Committee in June 2007 passed an amendment to block the funds until the Bush administration certified that Libya was complying with its agreement to compensate the families. Section 654 of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill reads as follows:
 'Libya' is a new general provision
 which provides that no funds under
 this Act may be used for any diplomatic
 operations in Libya until the
 President certifies to Congress that
 the Government of Libya has taken
 'irrevocable' steps to pay the settlement
 to the surviving families of Pan
 Am Flight 103 bombing and works in
 good faith to resolve the La Belle
 Discotheque bombing and other
 unresolved acts of terrorism. (23)

On July 11, 2007, President Bush announced the nomination of Gene Cretz, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, to be the next American ambassador to Libya, a post vacant since Ambassador Joseph Palmer departed in November 1972. The move to send an American ambassador to Tripoli, a sign of strengthening diplomatic ties, angered the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. The following day, four Democratic senators--Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York--announced they would delay Senate confirmation of the nomination until Libya made the third and final payment owed the families. The lawmakers also asked the Bush administration to pressure Libya to settle with the families of the victims of the 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing that killed two American servicemen. (24)

As the United States delayed in removing Libya from the terrorism list, the Libyan government continued to proclaim Megrahi's innocence and to push for his removal from a Scottish prison to one in Libya or another Muslim country. (25) Selected observers, including British relatives of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, also continued to express doubts as to Megrahi's guilt. In October 2005, the British government concluded a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Libya that provided for the extradition of Libyan nationals as long as Libya guaranteed they would not be tortured or executed. While the Foreign Office denied the MOU applied to the Megrahi case, some observers expressed concern it could lead to his return to Libya. In June 2007, the British government negotiated another MOU with Libya providing for judicial cooperation, extradition and prisoner transfer, which again raised concerns the agreement could pave the way for Megrahi to be transferred from Scotland to Libya. And, in December 2007, the British government negotiated a Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya, which did not specifically exclude Megrahi. (27)

With the Lockerbie process a continuing subject of controversy, a Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) recommended in late June 2007 that Megrahi be granted a second appeal so that new evidence that he was wrongly convicted could be considered. The details of the SCCRC decision, which ran to over 800 pages, not including 13 volumes of appendices, were not released; however, a press statement concluded the defendant was "entitled to a further appeal against his conviction for the murder of 270 people."
 Between the initial submissions and
 the additional submissions received
 during the course of the review, the
 Commission identified a total of 48
 principal grounds for consideration
 and review by the Commission.... In
 relation to 45 of the original 48
 grounds identified, the Commission
 has concluded that it does not believe
 that a miscarriage of justice has
 occurred. Of the remaining grounds,
 some of which resulted from the
 Commission's own investigations, the
 Commission has identified 6 grounds
 where it believes that a miscarriage of
 justice may have occurred and that it
 is in the interest of justice to refer the
 matter to the court of appeal. (28)

The SCCRC report was submitted to the High Court (Court of Appeal), which was expected to take several months to make a recommendation. The court could reject an appeal request, order a retrial, or quash the conviction and free Megrahi without further investigation. While the SCCRC decision did not guarantee the success of an appeal, statistics in its press statement indicated that it had reviewed 887 cases since its establishment in April 1999 but referred only 67 of them to the High Court, of which 39 had been determined to date. Of those 39 cases, 25 appeals had been granted, 11 rejected and three abandoned. Based on these statistics, Megrahi had an excellent chance of being granted a second appeal. If his conviction were to be overturned, Libya could demand the return of the $2.16 billion paid to the families of the victims of the Pan Am flight 103 bombing.

The Libyan decision in December 2003 to renounce unconventional weapons and related delivery systems marked a rare success in recent times for traditional arms-control diplomacy. The policy process was initiated during the Clinton administration and brought to fruition, with substantial assistance from the British government, during the Bush administration. To many observers, the "Libyan Model" offered a welcome alternative to the bellicose policies of the Bush administration, policies that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq and also characterized the American approach to recalcitrant states like Iran, North Korea and Syria. While the diplomatic process was strongly endorsed by active participants in the talks, including Martin Indyk and Flynt Leverett, the Bush administration chose to portray the Libyan decision as a product of the Iraq War, distorting success instead of building on it. Refusing to recognize the Libyan Model for what it was--a rare success for persistent, patient, quiet diplomacy--the Bush administration twisted, denied and eventually discarded it as a successful and replicable model for conflict resolution. (29) In the process, the Libyan Model became a second casualty of Bush administration policy in North Africa and the Middle East.

The good will towards the United States that existed in Libya and elsewhere in the region in the immediate aftermath of the December 2003 announcement was a third casualty of the American delay in restoring commercial and diplomatic relations. Within months, Qaddafi and other Libyan officials were complaining publicly that Libya had not been adequately compensated by the international community for giving up its unconventional weapons, suggesting the Libyan example offered little incentive to other countries to follow suit. In a November 2004 interview with Le Figaro, Qaddafl said the United States, Europe and Japan should give Libya more "security guarantees" as well as additional "peaceful technology." In May 2005, Ambassador Ali Aujali, head of the Libyan mission in Washington, complained about the slow pace of American diplomacy, adding, "With all the courageous decisions we took we are not being treated fairly." When Senator Richard Lugar, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Libya in August 2005, Qaddafi again complained that Libya had not received enough in return for renouncing unconventional weapons. When Lugar asked what more he expected, Qaddafi said sophisticated weapons from the United Kingdom and the United States and nuclear technology for turning seawater into drinking water. In March 2006, Ambassador Aujali said that Libya felt "cheated" after the State Department announced that Libya would remain on the terrorism list for another year. (30)

Three months later, Ambassador Aujali told a meeting of the U.S.-Libya Business Association that he originally expected bilateral relations would be normalized by the end of 2004, as Flynt Leverett had earlier indicated. He added that Libya, in giving up weapons of mass destruction, had given other countries "a great model," but up to that point, he could not see that Libya had been properly compensated. Once the United States had removed Libya from the terrorism list and renewed full diplomatic relations, Ambassador Aujali again referred to the Libyan Model in a November 2006 interview, indicating "the United States also realized the best way to deal with Iran is to talk to the Iranians," because "the only thing practical is dialogue and personal contacts between the peoples." In an early March 2007 interview, Qaddafi said he was disappointed that the promises given by America and Britain in the course of the 2003 negotiations were not fulfilled, adding that there should be a model to follow, but no state was going to follow Libya's example because it received nothing in return for its renunciation of unconventional weapons. Later in the month, he repeated his wish to have President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visit Libya. Following the release in July 2007 of the six foreign medics convicted of spreading HIV/AIDS, Rice commented in a radio interview that she hoped to visit Libya "soon." One month later, Ambassador C. David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, traveled to Libya to discuss arrangements for a possible Rice visit later in the year. (31)

In contemplating a more effective way to deal with Libya, the British approach offered an attractive alternative paradigm. Reflecting the wisdom of Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who once observed that "nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests," the British moved quickly to reestablish relations with Libya despite the fact that a number of the 87 non-Americans killed in the Lockerbie disaster were British or Commonwealth citizens, including the 11 people killed on the ground. As soon as the suspects in the Pan Am 103 bombing were remanded into UN custody in April 1999, the British government agreed to restore full diplomatic relations with Libya once the latter assumed responsibility for the murder in 1984 of a police constable, Yvonne Fletcher, outside the Libyan embassy in London. The British ambassador to Libya took up his post in Tripoli in December 1999, while an American ambassador was still not in place eight years later. In May 2000, British officials opened a commercial fair in Tripoli, the largest of its kind since the suspension of UN sanctions, while the United States waited until early 2004 to begin to lift its economic sanctions. As mutual confidence expanded, the Libyans approached the British, not the Americans, in the spring of 2003 to announce their willingness to discuss the renunciation of unconventional weapons and related delivery systems. To this day, it remains highly unlikely the deal announced in December 2003 would have been initiated, let alone concluded, without British participation. (32)

Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Libya in March 2004 and returned in June 2007 as part of his farewell tour of Africa. In the course of the latter visit, which included the announcement of large arms and energy deals, Blair said commercial relations with Libya were going from "strength to strength," adding that Qaddafi was a man he found "very easy" to deal with and one who always kept his word. Grounded in tradition, British diplomacy toward Libya also exemplified the effective use of soft power, engaging countries as opposed to invading them, generally favored by the European Union. (33)


The World Bank estimates Libyan oil reserves to be in excess of 39 billion barrels, with natural gas reserves totaling over 51 billion cubic feet. In the first three rounds of the current phase of exploration and production-sharing agreements (EPSA-4), more than two dozen companies from over a dozen countries have been awarded new contracts, with a fourth round of awards scheduled for December 2007. Libya has also concluded bilateral agreements with several large companies, including Occidental Petroleum, Royal Dutch/Shell and BP, combining exploration and production-sharing agreements with downstream development. Given this massive expansion effort, experts estimate that Libyan hydrocarbon reserves will double, if not triple, in coming years. In the process, Libya will become an increasingly important energy supplier to the world in general and Europe in particular. The United States is not a major importer of Libyan oil; however, it remains in the national interest to encourage increased production beyond its own current energy suppliers because that reduces competition for traditional energy sources. (34)

With the suspension of UN sanctions in 1999, Libya launched a series of fresh initiatives in Africa with Qaddafi's ultimate goal being a United States of Africa. Long active on the continent, he remains a controversial but respected figure because of his dogged support over the years for independence movements. In soliciting Libyan support in the war on terror, the United States hoped to add Libya to the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), an initiative linking the United States to nine North and West African states working to deny al-Qaeda a regional sanctuary. Washington also enlisted Libyan support for its plan to deploy an American command force, AFRICOM, on the continent; however, the move from intelligence sharing to support for a permanent American base in Africa involved a level of exposure Qaddafi could not accept. A strong proponent of "Africa for the Africans," the Libyan leader remains opposed to any Western-controlled military force being deployed in Africa. Qaddafi's attempts to broker talks between Chad and Sudan, as well as between the competing factions in Darfur, are another reflection of his commitment to African solutions to African problems. In turn, the Bush administration is interested in seeing Libya moderate Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's policies in Zimbabwe, abstain from intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, and temper certain Islamist or other opposition groups. Consequently, the regional policies of the Qaddafi regime remain an important concern of the United States. (35)

In early June 2007, Libya informed the United States that it was backing out of a 2006 contract to destroy its remaining mustard-gas stocks, believed to include some 23 metric tons of chemical weapons and 1,300 metric tons of precursor materials. The Libyan announcement cited its dissatisfaction with the U.S. refusal to pay for the entire destruction effort as well as unacceptable legal requirements raised during contract negotiations between Libya and the private contractor hired to complete the work. Under the terms of the 2003 agreement, Libya had promised to dismantle its unconventional weapons and related delivery systems, and by mid-2007 it had allowed the removal of more than 1,000 metric tons of critical nuclear and missile equipment, together with the destruction of 3,500 chemical-weapons-capable munitions. In December 2006, Libya and the United States concluded the new pact, in which Washington agreed to pay $45 million, or around 75 percent of the costs of the chemical-weapons-destruction element of the 2003 agreement. With all chemical agents scheduled for destruction by the end of 2007, the State Department played down the significance of the Libyan withdrawal, insisting Tripoli remained committed to destroying its chemical-weapons agents. However, some officials and experts worried that a critical opportunity to destroy Libya's remaining stocks of mustard gas and precursor chemicals could be lost. These concerns increased in mid-August 2007, when a report surfaced that Libya had not yet destroyed almost 200 barrels of uranium, despite its agreement in 2003 to dismantle its nuclear program. (36)

In early August 2007, the European defense group EADS announced a $450 million arms sale to Libya, including antitank missiles and modern communications equipment. Western arms suppliers hailed the deal as only the first in what appeared to be a highly lucrative market. Four months later, France concluded a x 10 billion trade deal with Libya that included a civilian nuclear reactor and contracts for armaments. Critics expressed concern that a Libyan return to large-scale arms purchases, similar to the 1970s, would disrupt the strategic balance in the region. Qaddafi's ongoing involvement in Sahelian-Saharan affairs, especially his courtship of minority groups and his proposed expansion of the Libyan armed forces to include Tuareg, Tebu and other Saharan peoples, are related concerns. The potential creation of a mercenary force controlled by Libya in a highly volatile area of the world worried governments in and out of the region, including the United States and its allies. (37)

The issues of democracy and human rights became a regular part of the dialogue with Libya after Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized them in 2003. In January 2006, Human Rights Watch reported Libya had taken important first steps to improve its human-rights record; however, it concluded that serious problems remained, including the use of violence against detainees, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and the incarceration of political prisoners. Subsequent reports detailed repeated abuses against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and the arbitrary detention of females in "social rehabilitation" facilities for the suspected transgression of moral codes. The most recent State Department report on human-rights practices, issued in March 2007, termed Libya an "authoritarian regime" whose "human-rights record remained poor." Nevertheless, Libya in June 2007 was chosen to head an antiracism panel of the UN Human Rights Council. Its poor human-rights record, together with the torture allegations put forth by the six foreign medics released in July 2007 and Amnesty International's ongoing reports of the arrest and torture of pro-democracy activists, sharpened criticism of the Libyan appointment to the anti-racism panel. President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the human-rights issue with Qaddafi during his December 2007 visit to France; however, the Libyan leader later denied the subject had been discussed. When Secretary of State Rice again raised the issue with Foreign Minister Chalgam during his January 2008 visit to the Department of State, the Libyan government quickly issued a statement denying that the question of human rights had been mentioned. When it comes to human rights, a state of denial clearly exists at the most senior levels of the Libyan government, highlighting one more area of unfinished business for the United States. (38)

In contrast to limited human-rights reforms, meaningful democratic reforms in Libya have been virtually nonexistent. Despite the public posturing of younger reformers like Saifal-Islam al-Qaddafi, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi continues to insist that his system of direct democracy is right for Libya--and the world. A few elements of Western-style representative democracy do exist in contemporary Libya, but others, like the rule of law, transparent authority and accountability, and freedom of dissent, do not. With Qaddafi in the role of eminence grise, unable--or unwilling--to recognize the deficiencies in the political system he created, any push for a representative democratic system, as long as he is alive and in power, would appear unlikely to bear fruit. Moreover, major opposition groups, when calling for regime change, have generally rejected armed action, specifically foreign interference a la Iraq by the United States, instead calling for the United Nations to restore constitutional rule. The opposition has also criticized the Bush administration for practicing a double standard when it comes to human rights. (39)

Finally, while Lockerbie remains the best-known case, Ambassador Welch suggested in June 2006 that there were approximately 15 outstanding legal cases pending against Libya, a number confirmed by the State Department in July 2007. Several come to mind, including the 1986 hijacking of Pan Am flight 73 at Karachi airport, in which 20 people were killed and more than 100 injured; the American claims in the April 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing; and a Pan Am suit seeking $375 million for the destruction of the Boeing 747 aircraft, loss of revenue and damage to its business reputation due to the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. Many of these cases involve a variety of legal and other issues, and officials in Libya and the United States agree that they will take considerable time to resolve. With the congressional holds on the confirmation of Ambassador Cretz and the construction of a new embassy tied both to Libyan payment of the third payout to the families of the Lockerbie victims and the resolution of the La Belle claims, sustained progress here appears unlikely in the near future. (40)


Throughout the Bush administration, ambivalence more that anything else has characterized American policy toward Libya, with good faith often in short supply on both sides. Pragmatists in the administration have pushed to reward the Qaddafi regime for its security cooperation, compensation for past terrorist attacks, and renunciation of unconventional weapons, and in so doing, have advocated a swift normalization of commercial and diplomatic relations. In contrast, the administration's ideologues worried about the Qaddafi of old and put their priority on punishing Libya for past deeds as opposed to rewarding it for policy change. Ironically, one unfortunate consequence of the deliberate pace the Bush administration followed in lifting sanctions was the undermining of nascent socioeconomic and political reforms within Libya itself.

With no politically significant constituency in the United States pressing for improved relations with Libya, some American officials have openly questioned the extent to which the United States wants to engage a country where public policy remains largely a personal preserve. As the dialogue played out, the Bush administration appeared to conclude that there was little to be gained from a broader relationship with what some observers viewed as an unpredictable, fundamentally abnormal, state. In so doing, the administration in effect returned U.S. policy to the year 2000, when Ambassador Neumann told a Senate subcommittee that an improved bilateral relationship was not an end in itself.

For more than half a century, the Libyan perspective has been fundamentally different. Following independence in 1951, Libya was seldom more than a side show for the United States, but the United States was often the whole show for Libya. From the outset of the One September Revolution in 1969, the Qaddafi regime insisted on a fair and equitable relationship with the United States, but almost four decades later, it has yet to achieve that goal. Once Qaddafi relinquished unconventional weapons, he anticipated many things, but most important to him, he expected to be treated by the United States as an equal. His fundamental complaint in recent years is that this is still not happening. A parade of European leaders has traveled to Libya over the last four years, many of them more than once, but Secretary of State Rice has yet to grace Qaddafi's tent, an omission Qaddafi takes as a major diplomatic and personal slight. A Rice visit to Libya--the first secretary of state to take such a journey since John Foster Dulles in 1953--would do much to advance bilateral relations, especially if it was accompanied by a renewed commitment on both sides to resolve outstanding issues. Despite administration claims to the contrary, a considerable amount of "unfinished business" remains on the table, much of which would appear to fall in the category of "permanent interests" for the United States.

(1) "Statement of Ronald Neumann, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, U.S. Department of State," Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, One Hundred Sixth Congress, First Session, July 22, 1999, Serial No. 106-82, pp. 3-5, quote p.5.

(2) Ronald E. Neumann, "Libya: A U.S. Policy Perspective," Middle East Policy, Vol. 7, No. 2 (February 2000): pp. 142-45, quotes pp. 143 and 145.

(3) "Statement of Hon. Ronald E. Neumann, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State, Washington, D.C." Hearing before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, One Hundred Sixth Congress, Second Session, May 4, 2000: pp. 3-6, quote p. 3.

(4) Martin S. Indyk, "Iraq Did Not Force Gadaffi's Hand," The Washington Post, March 9, 2004.

(5) Martin S. Indyk and Edward S. Walker, "What Does Libya's Disarmament Teach about Rogue States?" Middle East Institute Policy Brief (April 2004).

(6) The White House, Press Office, "Letter from the President: Continuing the Libya Emergency," January 3, 2001, Mimeograph copy.

(7) Ronald Bruce St John, "'Libya Is Not Iraq': Preemptive Strikes, WMD and Diplomacy," The Middle East Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Summer 2004): pp. 388-90.

(8) Flynt Leverett, "Why Libya Gave Up on the Bomb," The New York Times, January 23, 2004.

(9) Salah Awwad, "Interview with Libyan Foreign Minister Abd-al-Rahman Shalqam," Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 3, 2002, FBIS-NES-2002-1003; Amir Taheri, "Libya's Future? Talking to Muammar Kaddafi's Son," National Review, January 2, 2003; "Kaddafi Reformed?" Newsweek, March 15, 2004.

(10) Muammar al-Qaddafi, "The Leader's Analysis of the Current Crisis of Terrorism in the World," Al Gathafi Speaks ..., no date (

(11) Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003, April 2004, as corrected June 2004 (http://

(12) Irwin Arieff, "U.N. Security Council Lifts Sanctions on Libya," The Washington Post, September 12, 2003.

(13) Department of State, Secretary Colin L. Powell, "Libya--Pan Am 103," August 15, 2003 (

(14) St John, "'Libya Is Not Iraq'," pp. 396-97.

(15) Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, interview with author, London, October 24, 2003; "Libyan WMD: Tripoli's Statement in Full," BBC News, December 20, 2003 (; "The Leader Called on Other Countries to Abandon Nuclear Weapons," Jamahiriya News Agency, March 3, 2004 (

(16) The White House, President George W. Bush, "Libya Pledges to Dismantle WMD Programs," December 19, 2003 (

(17) Department of the Treasury, Office of Public Affairs, "President Declares End to National Emergency with Libya, Action Effectively Lifts Remaining Sanctions," September 20, 2004 (

(18) The White House, President George W. Bush, "State of the Union Address," January 20, 2004 (http://; Department of State, Secretary Colin L. Powell, "Interview by James Kitfield of National Journal," March 12, 2004 (; Department of State, Adam Ereli, "Daily Press Briefing," March 16, 2004 (

(19) "Libya Denies Responsibility for Lockerbie," BBC News, February 24, 2004 (; "Secretary of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation/statement," Jamahiriya Arab News Agency, February 25, 2004 (

(20) Muammar al-Qadhafi, "Leader of the Revolution Speech," Jamahiriya Arab News Agency, March 2, 2004 (; "Three Reasons behind Libya's Decision to Drop WMD: Khadafi's Son Says US, Britain Promised Libya Political, Military Gains If It Dismantled Its WMD Program," Middle East Online, March 10, 2004 (

(21) Kevin Morrison and Doug Cameron, "U.S. Oil Groups Win Libyan Permits," Financial Times, January 31, 2005; Ronald Bruce St John, "Libya and the United States: The Next Steps," Atlantic Council Issue Brief (March 2006): pp. 4-5; Department of State, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, "U.S. Diplomatic Relations with Libya," May 15, 2006 (

(22) "Libya Refuses to Extend Lockerbie Compensation Deal," Reuters, February 18, 2005 (http://; Bradley Graham, "Libya Says It Needn't Finish Payments to Flight 103 Victims' Families," The Washington Post, June 27, 2006.

(23) House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, House Report 110-197--State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, Appropriations Bill, 2008, June 12, 2007.

(24) Tabassum Zakaria, "Bush to Send Ambassador to Libya, First in Years," The Washington Post, July 11, 2007; "Senators to Bar Libya Ambassador Nominee," The Washington Post, July 12, 2007.

(25) Russell Jackson, "Return of Lockerbie Bomber 'a Priority,'" The Scotsman, July 31, 2007 (http://

(26) Matthew Vella, "More Doubts on Lockerbie with New Revelations," Malta Today, October 1, 2006 (http://; Gwynne Dyer, "Libya, Bulgarians, Lockerbie," Arab News, July 31, 2007 (http://

(27) Alan Travis, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Vikram Dodd, "Alarm at 'No Torture' Deal with Libya," Guardian Unlimited, October 19, 2005. (; Ian Swanson, "McConnell Put Stop to Libyan Prison Switch," The Scotsman, June 8, 2007 (; Gerri Peev, "Libya Deal on Eve of Lockerbie Anniversary," The Scotsman, December 20, 2007 (

(28) Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, Press Statement, "Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi," June 28, 2007 (

(29) Bruce W. Jentleson and Christopher A. Wyytock, "Who 'Won' Libya? The Force-Diplomacy Debate and Its Implications for Theory and Policy," Terry Sanford Institute Working Papers Series SAN05-06, Duke University (November 2005).

(30) "Muammar Kadhafi: "Que fait l'armee francaise en Afrique?", Le Figaro, November 24, 2004 (http://; "Libya Says Feels 'Cheated' Over U.S. Terrorism List," The New York Times, March 24, 2006.

(31) "Remarks at the 2006 U.S.-Libya Business Association Policy Conference," June 23, 2006 (http://; "The Capital Interview: Libyan Ambassador Hails U.S. Relations But Hits 'Wrong' Mideast Policies," Council on Foreign Relations, November 6, 2006 (; "Gaddafi: Libya 'Let Down' by West," BBC News, March 2, 2007 (; Department of State, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, "Interview on Radio Sawa with Samir Nader," July 25, 2007 (; "U.S. Assistant Secretary of State: U.S. Relations with Libya Will Soon Improve Considerably," Jamahiriya News Agency, August 23, 2008 (

(32) Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A. Q. Khan Network (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 176-95.

(33) "Blair in Libya for Gaddafi Talks," BBC News, May 29, 2007 (; Will Woodward, "First Stop of Blair's Farewell Africa Tour: Gadafy's Tent," Guardian Unlimited, May 30, 2007 (; Andrew Moravcsik, "Triumph in Libya for Tough Choices of Soft Power," Financial Times, July 30, 2007.

(34) Ronald Bruce St John, "Libya's Oil & Gas Industry: Blending Old and New," The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 2007): pp. 247-50.

(35) Mark Trevelyan, "U.S. Courts Libya for Africa Security Network," Middle East Online, October 16, 2006 (; Ezekiel Pajibo and Emira Woods, "AFRICOM: Wrong for Liberia, Disastrous for Africa," Foreign Policy in Focus, July 26, 2007 (; Jeffrey Gettleman, "Rebel Unity is Scarce at the Darfur Talks in Libya," International Herald Tribune, October 31, 2007 (

(36) Carol Giacomo, "U.S.-Libya Chemical Arms-Related Deal in Doubt," Reuters, June 8, 2007 (http://; Katherine Griffiths, "Libya Stalls on Vow to Destroy Uranium Stock," The Telegraph, August 13, 2007 (

(37) Jeremy Keenan, "Waging War on Terror: The Implications of America's 'New Imperialism' for Saharan Peoples," The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 10, Nos. 3-4 (2005), pp. 641-42; Elaine Ganley, "Libyan Market Seen As a Bonanza," The Washington Post, August 3, 2007; Allegra Stratton, "France signs *10bn trade deal with Libya," Guardian Unlimited, December 10, 2007 (

(38) C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, "Issues Related to United States Relations with Libya," On-the-Record Briefing, May 15, 2006 (; Human Rights Watch, "Words to Deeds: The Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform," Vol. 18, No. 1 (January 2006) (http://; State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices--2006, March 6, 2007 (http://; Amnesty International, "Libya: Trial Begins against Government Critics," July 2, 2007 (http://; Elaine Sciolino, "Divided, France Welcomes and Condemns Qaddafi," The New York Times, December 11, 2007; "Libya: Human Rights Not on Agenda in U.S.," The New York Times, January 4, 2008.

(39) Salah Sarrar, "Western Democracy Is Ill-Suited to Africa--Gaddafi," Reuters, February 28, 2007 (http://; "At U.N., Abusers in Charge," Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2007 (

(40) C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, "Question and Answer Session Panel 1: 'Diplomatic Outlook for U.S. Libya Relations,'" The 2006 U.S.-Libya Business Association Policy Conference, June 23, 2006 (

Dr. St John has served on the International Advisory Board of The Journal of Libyan Studies and the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya. His publications include Libya: From Colony to Independence, The Historical Dictionary of Libya, Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife, and Qaddafi's World Design: Libyan Foreign Policy, 1969-1987.
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Author:St John, Ronald Bruce
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Date:Mar 22, 2008
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