Monday, November 3, 2008

"...relations between Libya and the West are not yet stable and may be shaken again in the future"

Condoleezza Rice's Visit to Libya: The Final Step in Qaddafi's Diplomatic Rehabilitation?

By Hanna-Caroline Imig

24 Oct 2008

When the Libyan President Muammar Al-Qaddafi greeted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – whom he called his ‘dark African sweet-heart’ – in Tripoli at the beginning of September, it was a historic moment in the US-Libyan relationship. Rice was the first high-ranked US politician to visit Libya since 1953.

It seems that the long awaited visit of Rice – after many European leaders such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy had already knocked on Qaddafi’s door – completes Libya’s diplomatic rehabilitation. It was a long road back from the cold for Libyan President Muammar Al-Qaddafi. Over the past two decades, he has changed dramatically from a terrorist-sponsor and the leader of a rogue state, to a partner of the West. It is often suggested that Libya’s reintegration constitutes a model for dealing with other rogue states. However, asserting that the success with Libya can be repeated is not as simple as some politicians claim. A closer look at Libya’s rehabilitation shows that this process, which was mainly motivated by political and economic calculations, is not a model. In the coming months, Qaddafi’s relationship with the West should be watched carefully.

Libya used to be an archetypical rogue state: Qaddafi’s anti-Western, anti-imperialistic ideology, his support and active involvement in terrorism, as well as his attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, qualified Libya as an ‘enemy of the West’ for over thirty years. As such, Libya faced political, economic and military sanctions from the US and the UN and was isolated from the international community. Thus it was a surprise when Libya announced its abandonment of its rogue state image and a desire to reintegrate into the international community.
The first approaches to negotiate with the West were made through the settlement of the Lockerbie case. This settlement was achieved through secret three-party negotiations between the US, the UK and Libya held from 1999 onwards. Qaddafi agreed to extradite the two suspects, to pay compensation to the families of the victims, and to officially take total responsibility for the Lockerbie case. As part of the agreement, Qaddafi was also required to renounce all engagement in, as well as support of, terrorist activities. At the beginning of 2003, Libya paid the families of the 270 victims $2.7 billion in compensation. Following this action, the UN and most European countries lifted their sanctions in September 2003.

The US, on the other hand, decided to maintain their strict sanctions regime against Libya until Qaddafi abandoned his unconventional weapons program. Consequently, secret meetings between the US, UK and Libya continued in 2003 to find an agreement about the dismantlement of the program. On 19 December 2003, the Libyan Foreign Policy Minister Abd Al-Rahman Chalgram officially announced that Libya had decided, by its own free will, to be completely free of internationally banned weapons and to do so in a transparent manner under the observation of international inspectors.[1] However, it took until May 2006 for Libya to be removed from the US state sponsors of terrorism list and for the remaining US sanctions – some dating as far back as the Carter administration – to be lifted. On 11 July 2007, President Bush announced the nomination of Gene Cretz as the next American ambassador to Libya, a post vacant since Ambassador Joseph Palmer departed in November 1972.

After Libya’s decision to renounce weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration and various neo-conservatives – in need of positive publicity for their pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein – quickly portrayed the Libyan change as a by-product of the Iraq war. However, as the records of the secret tri-party negotiations show, Libya’s transformation was far removed from the influence of the Iraq war. In fact, the Bush-doctrine limited, restricted and slowed down the rehabilitation process of Libya on several occasions. Once Qaddafi had fulfilled the requirements and pleased the West, he expected to be treated as an equal, especially by the US. Most other European countries, as well as Russia, were quick to embrace Qaddafi and welcome him back into the international community. By contrast, the Bush administration found it difficult to reward Libyan attempts to disarm because Tripoli’s behaviour did not fit Washington’s rogue state model. Preoccupied with Iraq, a negotiated settlement with Libya would have undermined the Bush administration’s argument that the removal of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction necessitated a war.[2] It was not until the US realised that they were missing out on lucrative oil and gas deals with Libya that they loosened their policy and tried to catch up with many of the European states that had already established a business relationship with Qaddafi. The inflexible US ‘rogue state’ doctrine, the late sanction lifting, US claims that pre-emptive strikes against Iraq and not its own free-will motivated Libya to rejoin the international community and the delayed visit of Condoleezza Rice, discredited Libya’s co-operation. In that, it did not constitute a model for other rogue states expected to follow the example set by Libya.

At the same time, another important constraint of the ‘model’ function of the Libyan case is the lack of its co-operation with Western demands for democracy promotion and respect for human rights. Qaddafi still runs a repressive leadership and regularly abuses human rights within his borders. In January 2006, Human Rights Watch reported Libya had taken some steps to improve its human rights record. However, it concluded that serious problems remained, including the use of violence against detainees, restrictions on freedom of expression and association and the incarceration of political prisoners.

It becomes clear that even though relations between Libya and the West have improved enormously in the past couple of years, the main reason behind Libya’s rehabilitation lies in pure realpolitik. Qaddafi, who was in need of investments, and the West, more than willing to undertake these investments, focused on economic deals, instead of reinforcing issues such as democracy-building and the promotion of human rights. Libya’s promising business and investment opportunities, especially in the oil and gas markets, leave open concerns that the rush to negotiate lucrative contracts with Libya may encourage Western governments and businesses to overlook the country’s human rights record. We cannot expect rogue states to instantly transform into stable and democratic states; however, the improvement of Libyan domestic policies should, at the very least, be put on the agenda at future negotiations. Even more so now that Qaddafi’s son (and at-one-point presumed successor) Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi, known for his engagement in political and economic reforms in Libya, recently decided to step back from the political scene.
The future relationship with the senior Qaddafi is also uncertain, as ‘unfinished business’ still remains between Libya and the West. The Lockerbie process remains a subject of controversy. Although American and Libyan officials formulated a final deal over the Lockerbie case and other Libyan-sponsored attacks, it remains unclear if this agreement is going to be implemented. So far, the fund remains empty.
Additionally, the presumed-closed Lockerbie trial seems to be taking new directions. The Libyan official Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only person convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, is currently undertaking a second appeal in Scotland. If his conviction were overturned, Libya could demand the return of the money already paid to the victims of the Lockerbie case. If it is determined that recent Libyan declarations of acceptance of responsibility for the Lockerbie case were simply diplomatic ploys to get sanctions lifted, Libya’s relationship with the West could be further weakened. Libya might be back from the cold, but the relations between Libya and the West are not yet stable and may be shaken again in the future.
It has become apparent that Libya’s rehabilitation was not driven by moral insight or democratic aspirations, but by pragmatic considerations and realpolitik. However, this demonstrates the reality of international relations in that states are mainly driven by political, economic, and strategic interests and more likely deal with each other if there is mutual benefit, as was the case with Libya. Considering this exceptional situation of correlated interests, the deduction of a model or general concept from this case that is applicable to all other rogue states seems difficult. Every case is unique and determined by a specific geo-political environment that has to be closely analysed.

With this said, there is still one important lesson that can be drawn from the Libyan case; it is always worth attempting to deal with rogue states diplomatically, rather than simply isolating them or confronting them with military force. Instead of using force, choosing a policy of dialogue, confidence-building and multilateral engagement could be an option for dealing with other rogue states, such as Syria or Iran. An integrated rogue state is still safer than an isolated one. However, the simple implementation of this approach does not automatically produce a successful outcome. Political, economic and strategic interests need to correlate and be negotiated quid pro quo.

Libya has changed dramatically from a rogue state to a ‘business partner’ in the past two decades. But can the relationship between Libya and the West go much further? Lord Palmerston famously said ‘nations have no permanent friends or allies; they just have permanent interest[s].’ It remains to be seen if, through further constructive engagement, Libya and the West will continue to share interests, deepening and stabilising their relationship. However, it seems highly unlikely that Libya will ever turn into a strong Western supporter like Morocco or Egypt. Qaddafi is always careful not to be seen in one single camp and tries to keep his options open. He engages with whoever is able to maximise his power, and economic and strategic interests. Libya’s current discussions with Russia regarding their access to Libya’s energy resources and arm sales underline Qaddafi’s volatility. It almost seems cynical that just when the West, especially the US, considers Libya’s rehabilitation completed, Russia steps into the game and tries to convince Qaddafi to balance his growing relations with the West with stronger ties to Moscow. In whichever direction Libya swings next, we can say with certainty that we have not heard the last from Muammar Al-Qaddafi.

Hanna-Caroline Imig

International Security Studies, RUSI

[1] Ronald Bruce St John, ‘Libya and the United States: A Faustian Pact?’, Middle East Policy (No. 1, Vol. 15, Spring 2008).
[2] Ronald Bruce St John, ‘Libya is not Iraq’, Middle East Journal (Vol. 58, No. 3, Summer 2003).

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