Though the White House is pleased to take credit for Libya’s dramatic disavowal of banned weapons, the regime of Col. Moammar Kadafi has been seeking for more than a decade to trade its uncomfortable renegade status for international acceptance.
Kadafi, who in the 1970s aspired to lead the Arab world in a terrorist-led battle against the United States, has recently sought to rebuild ties to the West and to persuade the international community to end sanctions that have hurt his nation’s economy and diminished his stature.
But if the former firebrand, now 60, has shown signs of mellowing, it has not been clear to what extent he has scaled back the weapons program he saw as a trump card. Friday’s disclosures suggest that Kadafi until recently had hoped to keep his nuclear, biological and chemical programs ticking along, even as he campaigned to win diplomatic and economic support from the West.
Kadafi had sought to build such weapons almost since he came to power 34 years ago. He began amassing an arsenal, and he provoked the United States by taking a leadership role in the 1973 oil crisis, calling for the destruction of Israel and offering haven to a variety of terrorist groups.
The United States began to view the unpredictable, flamboyant leader as one of the most dangerous in the region, and President Reagan called him “the mad dog of the Middle East.”
But Kadafi’s regime appeared to change its attitude when countries closed ranks against him in the aftermath of the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. When two Libyan intelligence agents were charged as the principal conspirators, the United Nations imposed sanctions, and Libya was virtually isolated from the world.
Especially since 1997, Kadafi’s government has taken a new approach. It has sought to build economic and diplomatic ties with Europe. And after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Libya was one of the first Arab countries to support the United States, lining up in favor of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and helping Washington with intelligence.
In September, it agreed to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and to pay as much as $2.7 billion to the families of victims, winning a lifting of the U.N. sanctions.
At the same time, a debate over the extent of Kadafi’s weapons of mass destruction continued.
Some leading independent weapons experts had concluded that Kadafi had a substantial chemical weapons program, a rudimentary missile effort, and a biological weapons program, which was largely limited to research and development.
Libya’s intentions on nuclear weapons have been unclear, though it has a civilian-use light-water reactor, subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
However, in the negotiations leading up to Friday’s announcement, U.S. and British experts toured facilities in Libya where they saw equipment that was being used to develop a nuclear weapons program.
One of the projects underway was aimed at enriching uranium. They said various programs were underway at more than 10 sites.
Libya’s largest output of illicit weapons had been from a chemical plant at Rabta, which turned out 100 tons of blister and nerve agents before it was closed in 1990, under pressure from the United States, said Joseph Cirincione, chief of nonproliferation research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
There was even more concern over a suspected underground chemical weapons plant at Tarhunah. In late 1996, a U.S. defense official caused an international stir by suggesting that the United States might use a nuclear weapon to destroy the plant.
But tensions began to ease after Libya reportedly halted construction on the project, Cirincione wrote in his book “Deadly Arsenals.” The book said Libya’s biological weapons effort could produce limited quantities of some germ agents but probably would not be able to advance further without foreign assistance and expertise.
Libya has tried to appear to be in line with international norms on the weapons issue. It is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention, though not the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Even so, some Bush administration officials have contended that Kadafi’s program was active, and highly threatening.
In May 2002, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, in a speech titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” denounced Libya as a “rogue” state and asserted that the country was trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
And the CIA contended that Libya was seeking to move ahead with its chemical and biological weapons efforts.
Cirincione said the public should be cautious in coming to conclusions about how far along Libya was in developing a nuclear weapons program. He said there had been rumors in recent months, but no proof, that Kadafi was again trying to gather technology useful for the program.
Even so, Cirincione said Libya’s pledges to renounce the weapons and accept new international oversight were “very significant. This is not a turnaround, since they’ve been moving in this direction for years. But it’s a consolidation,” he said.
He said he hoped the success with Libya would encourage the Bush administration to be more explicit with North Korea about the rewards Pyongyang could win from abandoning its nuclear program.
So far, he said, the White House has been unwilling to say what rewards it would give, in contrast to the approach taken with Libya.
Michael Levi, a specialist on weapons at the Brookings Institution, said he hoped that U.S. and European governments could seize on this success to try to make progress with proliferation issues with countries such as Syria and Iran. “Symbolic moments are very important in the Middle East,” he said.