How We Dodged Libya's Nuclear Bullet

In a stunning trans-Atlantic announcement on December 19, 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush said Libya had agreed, after nine months of secret talks, to publicly disclose and dismantle all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs; to limit its missiles to a range of less than 300 km; and to open the country immediately to comprehensive inspections to verify its compliance. Even more importantly, Libya agreed to provide information on its dealings with the nuclear black market.

Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi realized that to survive, he needed Western investment and Western markets. His son, Seif, reportedly urged his father to make the deal.

As the New York Times' David Sanger reports today:

Today, with father and son preparing for a siege of Tripoli, the success of a joint American-British effort to eliminate Libya's capability to make nuclear and chemical weapons has never, in retrospect, looked more important.

A Bipartisan Effort Spanning Administrations

Qaddafi's acceptance of responsibility for the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 led to the suspension of U.N. sanctions in 1999, but it became clear that he would also have to end his pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons before Washington would lift its sanctions. As Blair noted, Qaddafi came to Britain with a proposal to do just that in March, just before the Iraq War began.

In March 2003, shortly before the Iraq War began, Musa Kussa, President Qaddafi's chief of intelligence approached British M16 officials seeking to conclude negotiations for the end of its unconventional weapon programs in exchange for normalization of ties. Some officials and experts link Libya's decision to President Bush's national security strategy and the invasion of Iraq. The presence of 250,000 U.S. forces in the region undoubtedly had an impact, but it does not seem that President Qaddafi feared an U.S. invasion of Tripoli.

More likely, Qaddafi had concluded that he needed Western contracts and markets more than he needed chemical or nuclear weapons. Efforts to end Libya's weapon programs spanned four presidential administrations.

The UN had imposed sanctions in 1992 in response to the downing of an airliner over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988. Some U.S. sanctions were already in place by then, having been imposed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. More U.S. sanctions followed in 1992 and 1996. In the late 1990's Libya approached the second Clinton administration with hopes of ending international isolation. The Clinton administration made Libyan cooperation in the Lockerbie bombing case a prerequisite to normalizing U.S.-Libya relations. Even after the United Nations suspended its sanctions in 1999, U.S. sanctions remained in place. U.S. officials made clear that Libya would have to address concerns over its weapons programs before U.S. sanctions would be lifted. These discussions continued in the Bush administration.

Changing Regime Behavior

Whether by design or by chance, the U.S. and the UK in 2003 struck the right combination of force and diplomacy. Prime Minister Tony Blair seems to have been a decisive influence on President Bush, overcoming opposition from the US Department of Defense to any "deals with dictators." Former State Department official Flynt Leverett, who was involved in these negotiations, notes, "The lesson is incontrovertible: to persuade a rogue regime to get out of the terrorism business and give up its weapons of mass destruction, we must not only apply pressure but also make clear the potential benefits of cooperation."

With the agreement, British, US and IAEA officials visited 10 previously secret facilities and removed 55,000 pounds of documents and components for Libya's nuclear and missile programs, including uranium hexaflouride, centrifuge parts, and guidance devices for long-range missiles. The United States also removed Scud-C missiles and their launchers, as well as more than 15 kilograms of fresh highly enriched uranium. Libya destroyed 3,000 chemical munitions, consolidated and secured their stocks of chemical weapons agents and precursors for destruction, and joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. IAEA and U.S. officials have verified that Libya's disarmament was transparent and almost complete.

More that 4,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium were flown out of the country. The United States also took possession of blueprints for a nuclear bomb. Libya had purchased all of these from the infamous A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan that also supplied Iran with centrifuges. The entire nuclear operation was moved lock, stock and barrel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

In late 2009, only a few casks of highly enriched uranium remained. The Obama administration, as Sanger reports, leaned heavily on Qaddafi to surrender these as well. He did. Today, in the chaos of Libya, we do not have a nuclear threat to add to our worries.

Just as importantly, the world now has two very different models for how to eliminate a threatening nation's nuclear and missile capabilities. The Iraq model of regime change has been enormously costly, chaotic and uncertain. And the Libyan model of changing regime behavior has been efficient, effective and almost cost-free.

We will all be better off with Qaddafi out of power. And we will all be better off that this regime change is being effected by the people of Libya, not by a foreign government. The US and British role was to remove the nuclear threat from the nation, no matter who was in control. Thanks to the wise choices of 2003, we have dodged the Libyan nuclear bullet.

The Huffington Post