At Large

The Scores of Tripoli

A false redemption story has allowed Libya to make gains in Washington and on the world stage.

By 10.22.07

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It's hard to believe, but it's true: In January 2008 Libya will become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the next two years. Perhaps even more striking is the self-satisfied approval of this event by the United States. All that was necessary for this diplomatic about-face was first a foreswearing of Tripoli's nuclear and chemical weapons development -- and lots of money.

The potential of eventually gaining large contracts had kept American and other Western oil companies solidly in the "friendly camp" for Libya during the many years of isolation and sanctions. Intermediaries, both governmental and private, well compensated by Tripoli, periodically made efforts among the political and diplomatic power brokers in Washington and London.

Negotiations between Libya and the families of the victims of the crash of PanAm 103 continued for years, finally devolving into strictly a matter of "how much and who." The several administrations from Reagan to Bush then Clinton tried at various times to smooth over the PanAm families' personal and political feelings, but in the end always had drawn back in fear of their own potential domestic political loss.

The British have been given credit for breaking through first via covert negotiations on Libya's knowledge of and aid to the IRA. The fact is that Tripoli had been trying to "sell" this connection for many years on both sides of the Atlantic. There had been so many feelers put out over the years through various back door channels that a competition had developed among the several official and unofficial conduits.

All of this was going on long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was supposedly the catalyst for Libya's, and Qaddafi's, "conversion" to a peaceful evolution of his country's isolation. The whole affair was under negotiation in one form or another going all the way back to the late '80s right after the PanAm 103 crash.

On the Libyan side it has always been difficult to follow a clear line of initiative. Cabinet shuffles appear to occur nearly annually. Even though it's more of a game of musical chairs played by the cadre of political insiders, the process tends to interrupt progress even on important issues. This has suited Muammar Qaddafi quite well, for in the end he remains as the final arbiter of everything.

The parade of loyal courtiers, each with their own external and internal political connections, marched -- or rather tip-toed -- through the great man's tent with information and briefs on everything from the latest rumor on Italian League football, a family passion, to the latest skinny on U.S.-North Korean strategic negotiations. This is in addition to the regular reporting of the Libyan intelligence and security services. Qaddafi was never as isolated as Washington imagined him.

The problem was that Tripoli, London and Washington were mired for different reasons in positions that did not allow for a public breakthrough in the status quo. From Qaddafi's personal standpoint, and thus Libya's, the Arab world did not treat him with the importance he felt justified in receiving. Certainly Arab unity rarely saluted the hard work and substantial monetary aid that Qaddafi's regime had poured into "the cause" over the years. His prestige and concomitant leverage among Libya's Middle Eastern brethren deteriorated more and more.

The anti-WMD program begun in the UN against Iraq in 2002 provided just the key to breaking the long term deadlock for Tripoli with Washington. There had never been any love lost between Saddam Hussein and Col. Qaddafi. The successful Anglo-American invasion became the perfect occasion to announce in a true born-again manner that Libya and Qaddafi had seen the light. The nascent nuclear program was dismantled along with the chemical warfare production and stockpile. The Libyans did everything but roll in the sand in ecstasy while Washington and London loudly proclaimed the sinner's redemption.

Time for the reward -- Libya is to be a member of the UN Security Council. The oil companies are happily negotiating new drilling contracts. The PanAm families have accepted around $3 billion in settlement. Tripoli is crowded with businessmen and diplomats. And the European football matches can be seen via satellite television in Tripoli. Is there something we are missing here?

George H. Wittman, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.