In 2003, the Western view of Libya’s autocratic president was much the same as it is now: a dangerously unstable tyrant who slaughters his own people. But late that year, Moammar Gaddafi sent a secret message to a British diplomat saying he was ready to change.
“He wanted to come in from the cold,” said a former senior aide to President George W. Bush who worked in the White House when the request came in. Within months, the Bush administration was actively furthering a U.S. and British diplomatic courtship of the Libyan leader that had begun under President Bill Clinton.
With substantial U.S. backing, Gaddafi publicly abandoned his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in 2004 and later renounced his support for terrorist groups, a dramatic turnabout that was rewarded with full U.S. diplomatic recognition. Yet while the reforms succeeded in ending Gaddafi’s status as an international pariah, Libyan promises of political reform never materialized. Now, after this week’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tripoli, human rights groups and some Libyan opposition leaders are asking whether the United States was duped in 2003 into propping up one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
In hindsight, the deal struck with Gaddafi did little to help ordinary Libyans, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington research institute.
“We rehabilitated a cruel dictator in the interest of securing American policy gains,” Miller said. Though the policy change had its merits, “it was a devil’s bargain because we essentially said, ‘If you support our policies on war and peace, we’ll give you a pass on human rights,’ ” Miller said.
Others argue that Libyans would likely be no better off today if the deal had not been struck, and indeed, by almost every measure, the perils facing the region would be far worse.
“His nuclear program would still be intact and even further developed, and he would have his missiles and chemical weapons to use as he wishes,” said Elliott Abrams, a former foreign policy adviser to both Bush and President Ronald Reagan. Rejecting Gaddafi’s overture would have left the West without any levers for influencing Libyan behavior, he added. “It would be saying to him, ‘You go on making nuclear weapons and supporting terrorists, and we’ll just make speeches’ ” about human rights, Abrams said.
The deal exemplified Gaddafi’s ability to command international attention, in part because of Libya’s oil resources, but also because Gaddafi pursued advanced weapons, supported terrorist groups and put himself forward as the leader of an entire continent.
Gaddafi’s surprise diplomatic overture to the West in 2003 came at a time when his country was struggling economically under U.N. economic sanctions and locked in a state of perpetual conflict with the world’s only superpower. The United States had bombed Libya in the 1980s in retaliation for Libyan-backed terrorist attacks, and Washington was pushing for hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution payments for Libya’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. At the time, Gaddafi had also just witnessed a devastating display of U.S military might in Iraq, as U.S.-led forces crushed Saddam Hussein’s army in less than three weeks.
The initial contact with British diplomats led to a U.S.-brokered deal that would eventually lead to political rehabilitation for Gaddafi and his government in return for dismantling programs to build nuclear and chemical weapons and advanced missiles.
“We had a huge bonanza: cooperation on counterterrorism and on the problem of weapons proliferation,” said David L. Mack, a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East and a deputy secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “The Libyans gave us the keys to the whole A.Q. Khan network,” said Mack, referring to the international nuclear smuggling ring led by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Abrams, who in 2003 was the top Middle East adviser to the Bush administration’s National Security Council, acknowledged that White House demands for Libyan political reform were “muted,” despite the intense pressure applied by the administration on other Middle Eastern governments to allow greater political freedom.
“We had just cut a deal with this guy. It would have been wrong to immediately start firing at him verbally,” Abrams said. He added that administration officials did begin engaging with other members of Gaddafi’s family and senior staff — including his Western-educated son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — to win support for the gradual introduction of reforms.
The lack of progress in those efforts was underscored by this week’s violence, which Middle East experts said demonstrated how little Gaddafi’s domestic policies had changed in the six years since Libya normalized relations with the United States in 2006. Then, as now, Gaddafi wielded absolute power and sought to crush potential rivals from tribal, political or religious groups opposed to his one-man rule.
Decades of repression have left the country’s population with little background or experience with which to build a democratic society. Unlike with other repressive regimes in neighboring countries, there have been few exchange programs or cooperative agreements that allow military officers to travel and train in the West, noted Mack, the former Middle Eastern ambassador.
“We can have impact in these countries, but it has to occur over time, through interaction,” Mack said. “In this case, we have lost two entire generations of Libyans who have experienced none of it.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.