By Brigitte L. Nacos
28 years after diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya were broken off and 5 years after some diplomatic ties were reestablished, the two countries are now ready to restore full diplomatic relations according to an AP report from the Libyan capital. Libya was taken off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2003, when Moammar Gadhafi agreed to give up the country’s WMD program and involvement in international terrorism and promised the compensation of terrorism victims’ families. By settling outstanding lawsuits by American families against the Libyan government and by Libyan victims of the 1986 U.S. air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi,the U.S. and Libyan governments removed the final obstacle on the way to full diplomatic relations.
During the 1980s and beyond, the United States government considered Libya one of the most flagrant sponsors of international terrorism. After intercepted phone calls implicated Libyan agents in the 1986 bombing of the La Belle Disco in Berlin, a favorite of U.S.military personnel, President Ronald Reagan ordered the retaliatory bombing of two Libyan cities. But the death of 41 Libyans, including Moammar Gadhafi’s adopted daughter, did not end Libya’s involvement in terrorism. Instead, Gadhafi and his government were responsible for one of the most lethal acts of terrorism: the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, just days before Christmas 1988 and the death of 270 Americans.
From Pan Am Flight 103 Memorial at Arlington Cemetery
What eventually convinced Gadhafi to abandon his involvement
in terrorism and his ambition to develop weapons of mass destruction were not
actual and threatened military retaliation but American, European and United
Nations sanctions that hurt his country’s economy and cast Libya in the
role of an outlaw from the perspective of many important members of the international
Bot only the Bush administration but also the families of the Pan Am 103 victims deserve credit for Libya’s metamorphosis from a dangerous sponsor of terrorism to one eager to recover from its pariah status. By relentlessly pressuring the U.S. government and the United Nations to force Gadhafi into admitting his government’s role in the Pan Am 103 bombing and handing over two Libyan agents to the Scottish High Court, they kept the limelight on Gadhafi’s misdeeds and reinforced the rationale for tough sanctions against Libya. This was a huge factor in Gadhafi’s turnaround on terrorism and WMD.
Disengaging a state sponsor of terrorism from important players in the international political and economic community for decades and engaging the state’ s leadership in negotiations for years worked in the case of Libya. The negotiation route was also successful in convincing North Korea, another terrorism sponsor state, to take a first step on the road to abandon WMD.
Although the United States and many other countries have long-standing policies against negotiating with terrorists and their sponsors, they have negotiated and made deals with terrorists in direct or indirect contacts. I am against negotiating with terrorist about the release of hostages and offering something tangible in return because this encourages further hostage takings. But negotiating the abandonment of terrorism by groups and states is another story. It brought about changes for the better in Northern Ireland—although some splinter groups resent the peace process and stick to their violent activities— and it worked in the case of Libya.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that the use of soft power will
succeed in the fight against terrorism. But whether with respect to terrorist
groups or state sponsors of terrorism, it is worth a try in most, though not all cases.