Last week, The Washington Post only told half the story of Libya's deal with the Bush administration. Here, Libya expert Henry Schuler exposes the truth: George W. Bush entered the souk desperate to vindicate his Iraq invasion at home and was willing to sacrifice U.S. national security to do it. As the dust settles, Bush has his claim, Gadhafi is strengthened, America's credibility is shot and the A.Q. Khan network remains at large.
Henry Schuler was first posted to Libya in 1957 as a naval intelligence officer, served as an executive in the oil industry, and retired as a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
George Bush never stops repeating that the world has been completely changed by the horrific attacks of 9/11. But his words are belied by his actions which demonstrate that the age-old mix of carrot and stick remains firmly entrenched in U.S. foreign policy. Now, let it be clear that this time-tested approach to international relations is entirely appropriate (and probably inescapable), provided it is executed with unclouded vision, untainted motives, unambiguous signals and unwavering resolve. Sadly, the Bush White House has ignored all of these prerequisites in its use of carrots and sticks.
Needing A Deal
Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove has spun both carrots and sticks into the web of campaign rhetoric that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney spout with increasing shrillness in the closing days of this campaign. The emphasis is, to be sure, on the pre-emptive use of muscular sticks in Iraq, but Rove recognizes that growing numbers of American voters know in their guts that it has been executed without attention to the prerequisites. Instead, U.S. vision has been clouded by neoconservative ideology; motives have been tainted by the commercial interests of Halliburton and countless security companies; signals have been distorted by a succession of U.S. proconsuls and their Iraqi stand-ins; and unwavering resolve has become a stubborn, faith-driven certainty. But all of those criticisms of the administration’s use of sticks are well known, so let’s refocus on the flip side of the "Bush Doctrine."
The carrots, as packaged by Rove, focus on the supposed intimidation and conversion of Mu’ammar Gadhafi, long considered the godfather of international terrorism. Perhaps the only head of state to call openly for the killing of Americans, his record of condoning, supporting and perpetrating terrorist acts all over the world is impeccable, if that is an appropriate word. George Bush’s predecessors used every tool in pursuing him: commercial embargo, diplomatic rupture, international isolation, judicial prosecution, and when all else failed, the bombing of his Tripoli headquarters in 1986. The results of these sticks were mixed—and the collateral damage very unfortunate—but America’s vision, motives, signals and resolve had been clear since the Reagan presidency.
After decades of acrimony and mistrust, President Bush and his only staunch ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, suddenly heaped lavish praise on Gadhafi in December of last year, making him the veritable poster child of a "reformed rogue." The carrots were quick to follow this unseemly—and in the event—overly hasty rehabilitation.
Quid Pro Quo
Bush’s resumption of diplomatic contact opened the door for our European allies to resume full diplomatic relations with Gaddafi and to send their leaders on state visits, including, within the last six months, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, and Silvio Berlusconi (twice). They were, of course, accompanied by CEO’s of European oil companies, aircraft manufacturers, and, since earlier this month, high tech arms salesmen. Their U.S. counterparts were not far behind once Bush lifted the economic sanctions that President Reagan had used to signal that America could not be bought with Libyan oil concessions and billion dollar purchase contracts. No longer was it necessary for U.S. companies to operate in Libya through the fiction of foreign subsidiaries, as Halliburton had done for 18 years while incurring stiff fines for violations of sanctions that Dick Cheney could not get lifted until he became vice president.
With unrivaled chutzpah, Bush and Cheney endlessly argue that these carrots were granted in exchange for Gadhafi’s "renunciation of terrorism" in August 2003 and his "relinquishment of weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) in December of that same year. Within four months of accepting, on August 15, 2003, Gadhafi’s artfully hedged renunciation of terror and his halfhearted acceptance of responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 (which killed 270 innocent travelers, three-quarters of them American citizens), the White House learned that Gadhafi had recently launched his most brazen terrorist plot yet. In March 2003, Gadhafi had personally instructed and paid a naturalized American citizen to enlist Al Qaeda-linked Saudi jihadists to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
Had this been attempted—let alone accomplished—it would have destabilized the entire Middle East, made $50 oil look like a bargain, and denied the United States desperately needed Saudi support in the war on terrorism. Fortunately, the American participant, Abdurahman Alamoudi, was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport carrying an undeclared $340,000 (one million Saudi rials) to Mecca as a down payment on the plot. That fortuitous discovery occurred on Aug. 16, 2003—just one day after the Bush administration had accepted Gadhafi’s "renunciation of terrorism."
Covering The Failure
Upon returning to the United States in September, Alamoudi was arrested and charged with terrorist-related activities. In the course of plea bargaining, he provided sworn testimony about Gadhafi’s personal involvement, testimony that was fully corroborated by FBI interrogation of Libyan intelligence operatives and Saudi jihadists who had been captured in late November when the plot neared fruition. Although the federal prosecutor and judge (with the full support of Attorney General John Ashcroft) used Alamoudi’s admission of involvement in the terrorist assassination plot to sentence him two weeks ago to 23 years for violating some routine sanctions, he was not formally charged with terrorism. The Bush administration’s decision not to pursue the terrorist assassination plot prior to Tuesday’s election strongly suggests that the deal that the White House struck with Gadhafi last December went beyond the admitted quid pro quos, to include immunity from American prosecution for the plot to kill Abdullah. Indeed, Gadhafi’s son and intended successor, Saif-al-Islam, has told journalists that his father has received assurances that the United States "would not interfere with his continuation in office," a formulation remarkably similar to that which permitted him to remain in charge after his 1998 surrender of two low-level bombers of Pan Am 103 for trial in The Hague. Because admission of such a deal would have totally destroyed Bush’s claim to be fighting terrorism on a worldwide basis, it was decided not to prosecute Alamoudi to avoid having to prosecute his co-conspirators, most notably Mu’ammar Gadhafi.
Before leaving the subject of Gadhafi’s so-called renunciation of terror, it should be noted that within six months of its issuance, Libyan Prime Minister Shruki Ghanem told the BBC that his country had paid $2.7 billion to the victims solely to gain U.S. concessions, not as a sincere acknowledgment of responsibility. When this threatened to bring down the Bush administration’s painstakingly constructed house of cards, the Libyan press agency corrected the record. But it is noteworthy that Ghanem was never rebuked and remains prime minister to this day.
So what did Bush get for giving Gadhafi a "get out of jail free card"? He obtained a pledge to cooperate on WMD that is proving as hollow as his pledge to renounce terrorism. Yes, he turned over some centrifuge parts that had never been removed from their crates plus an obsolete Chinese weapon design found in a Karachi dry cleaner’s wrapper. But the only deployable WMD was a large quantity of World War I era mustard gas. This motley lot of equipment was hastily shipped to the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory in Tennessee, which Bush promptly visited for some campaign footage. But the International Atomic Energy Agency was largely disdainful of Libya’s so-called WMD program.
Bush’s spinmeisters argue that even if Gadhafi gave up little equipment of real value, he helped to unravel Pakistan’s Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan’s smuggling network. The trouble with that spin is that former CIA director George Tennet revealed in a speech at Georgetown University in February 2003 that British and American intelligence had penetrated Khan’s network months before Gadhafi’s Dec. 19th "renunciation." Having seized the computer of the longtime British middleman between Gadhafi and Khan in June 2003, the intelligence agencies used its information to identify the ship that would carry nuclear equipment from Dubai to Tripoli and searched it in an Italian port in September 2003. The timing of this interdiction not only discredits Gadhafi’s claim of voluntary cooperation, but it also raises questions about assertions that Saif-al-Islam, Gadhafi’s son, instituted negotiations over WMD just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and Eliot Abrams argued that the impending invasion of Iraq intimidated Gadhafi into surrendering WMD, it hardly gibes with the fact that the September parts delivery was not canceled at that time. Nor is it consistent with the fact that the assassination plot was launched at precisely this time by summoning Alamoudi to Tripoli on March 13, 2003, less than a week prior to the invasion.
Finally, with respect to Gadhafi’s pledge of WMD cooperation, it is noteworthy that Libyans profess ignorance about the two most important questions that U.S. counter-proliferation experts have: How did Libya obtain a small quantity of highly enriched uranium and where was a second shipment of centrifuge parts diverted after the interdiction of the first? It is virtually inconceivable that the Libyans do not know the answers because, during the 1970s, Gadhafi financed Dr. Khan’s quest for an "Islamic bomb," a successful quest that became the basis for Khan’s smuggling network. Gadhafi thus shares with Khan the responsibility for facilitating the nuclear achievements of Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.
Sheikh v. Cowboy
How then did Gadhafi win both rehabilitation and immunity from George Bush when the White House knew about the plot against Prince Abdullah and had penetrated the Khan network? The answer lies in Gadhafi’s extensive experience in Western electoral maneuvering. He has long played a significant role in European politics, providing campaign funds, awarding lucrative contracts, bestowing well-timed policy concessions, suborning newspapers, and covertly backing preferred candidates. This is not to suggest that he has influenced U.S. campaigns with equal impact. Rather, it appears that Gadhafi fully recognized that Bush desperately needed to claim success for the "Bush Doctrine" in the Middle East. It was already clear by December 2003 that success was unlikely to come in Iraq prior to our November 2004 election. Gadhafi thus offered Bush an opportunity "to spin a Libyan silk purse out of an Iraqi sow’s ear."
As he attacks John Kerry’s alleged "flip-flopping," George Bush has consistently asserted the importance of clear and consistent presidential signals to friend and foe alike. Unfortunately, his signals do not pass his own test.
Consider first those Libyans and other Arabs who seek human rights, the rule of law, and some form of representative government They view U.S. rapprochement with Gadhafi simply as an extension of Washington’s 50-year record of bolstering repressive and corrupt regimes in the region. This comes at a particularly dangerous time as Bush has announced grandiose plans for the entire Middle East. It is seen simply as a new ploy in America’s grand plan to use dictatorial regimes to serve short-term U.S. strategic interests.
The signal to would-be terrorists and those in the Middle East whom we hope will oppose them is even more dangerous. When President Bush used his January 20th State of the Union address to tout Gadhafi’s pledge to relinquish WMD as evidence that "Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better," aspiring weapons proliferators knew better. Similarly, when terrorists heard President Bush make an unequivocal assertion that "Libya has turned its back on terror" in an April 13th report to the American people, they had only to listen to the widespread Middle Eastern press coverage of the plot against Prince Abdullah. And how do you think Abdullah reacts when American officials demand greater cooperation in hunting jihadists and shutting down suspect charities?
Have Bush’s Libyan carrots met the prerequisite tests any better than his Iraqi sticks? Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. Vision has been clouded by election-year political objectives; motives have been distorted by the financial interests of oil companies and personal injury lawyers who will get more than $500 million of the payment to the Pan Am victims; signals have been muddled by the misrepresentations of Bush and Cheney; and a lack of resolve is proclaimed by failure to prosecute the plotters against Prince Abdullah.
That’s a heavy price to pay for a partisan election gambit.