Libya’s decision to junk its WMD program confirms that sanctions, not pre-emptive war in Iraq as George Bush claims, worked. Diplomatic pressures punctuated by stiff commercial and military sanctions convinced Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to take stock of Libya’s international isolation and brought him to the negotiating table.
Europeans are astonished and more than a bit amused at the Bush administration’s claim that Libya’s renunciation of its nuclear arms program was fear of an Iraq-style pre-emptive invasion. The widespread belief in Europe is that Libya was never in a position to build any serious nuclear program because it lacked the know-how, scientists and facilities to proceed.
“Libya played a very skillful hand of poker with the U.S. administration and the West,” affirms Dina Nascetti, foreign correspondent for Italy’s leading newsweekly L’Espresso. “Qaddafi needed to see an end to commercial sanctions against his country.”
International sanctions were eating at Libya’s economic growth and stalling its efforts to play a decisive role in redesigning Africa’s political map. As a sign of rising economic woes, scores of Libyan vessels filled with refugees have landed daily on Italy’s southern shores. Although many of the refugees are Africans, the number of Libyan youths (they make up 60 percent of the population) taking to sea to find a better life in Europe has grown.
Faced with rising instability, Qaddafi announced the abandonment of his nuclear and chemical weapons goals, shrewdly grasping that the current U.S. administration more than ever needed a rogue state that would “capitulate” to American pressure.
Libya’s international isolation began in January 1986 with the imposition of American sanctions following the bombing of the La Belle Disco Dance Club in Berlin, where two U.S. soldiers and one Turkish were killed and an additional 229 people were injured. President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. air assaults on Tripoli, lightly wounding Qaddafi but killing his 2-year-old adopted daughter. The U.S. sanctions were followed in 1992 by economic, military and diplomatic sanctions by the United Nations in response to the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Since then, except for a tenuous relationship with the Arab League and the Organization for Africa Unity, Libya has been practically a pariah.
Sanctions are believed to have caused in excess of $35 billion in damage to the Libyan economy, stalling the development of its oil industry and causing the collapse of its service industry, which was run by European nationals.
The sanctions also created conditions for Islamic radicalism to infiltrate Libya. Libya increasingly relied on workers from Arabic countries, whose populations are mostly Islamic, to do work that Libyans refused. For example, Islamic Brotherhood literature arrived with the wave of Egyptian immigrants; the Brotherhood’s influence has grown among Libyan youths.
Now that Qaddafi has abandoned his unrealizable dream of pan-Arabism, discontented Libyan youths are finding a viable rallying point in Islamic internationalism. The notion of an Islamic renaissance throughout the Middle East and Africa is attracting adherents away from Qaddafi’s Arabic secularism and quest for equality between men and women as written in his Green Book, the Colonel’s guide to Libya’s revolution. Qaddafi needed a respite from economic problems fast.
“With the abolition of sanctions, Qaddafi gets a chance to deal with various problems affecting his country,” says Remo Lenci coordinator for UIL Croce Rossa, an affiliate of the Italian Red Cross. “One is breaking Libya’s economic isolation and flinging open the doors to Africa; another is being able to repress political opposition with the help of the West.” Jumping on the bandwagon of the American war on terrorism, “Libya doesn’t need to account anymore for its political and religious prisoners to the international community,” explains Lenci.
In fact, while opening the country for the first time to an Amnesty International inspection, Libya must still account for hundreds of political prisoners whose fates are unknown. Recently, Saif al-Qaddafi, the son of Muammar and the real architect of the opening to the West, has confirmed that no clemency will be given to the 600 prisoners at the Abu Salim jail. “As everywhere else in the world, also in Libya, terrorists must serve their time,” Said told visiting Amnesty officials and journalists.
Europeans are quietly miffed that in his eagerness to strike a deal with Qaddafi, Bush may have given him a sweeter deal than he could have managed in negotiations with the European Union, headed by Romano Prodi.
“The EU had to hurry to offset the potentially negative outcome of the U.S.’s untimely relinquishing of its sanctions,” admits a European diplomatic source who requested anonymity. “The U.S. opening of its wallet and its contacts with Qaddafi weakened the European community’s leverage on the issue of political prisoners and the compensation for years of terrorist activity in Europe.”
Coming out of a deep freeze, Libya, rewarded handsomely by a divided West, has launched its own plan for Africa. Conceived in collaboration with Fahmy Hudome, a Washington-based consulting firm, the plan encompasses a series of U.S.-Libyan joint ventures in Angola, South Africa, Senegal, Capo Verde, Sudan and Eritrea.
Paolo Pontoniere is a San Francisco-based correspondent of Focus, Italy’s leading monthly magazine.