Niv Farago. Middle East Policy. Volume 26, Issue 2. June 2019.
As a result of trilateral negotiations involving Libya, Britain and the United States, Libyan leader Muammar al‐Qadhafi decided on December 19, 2003, to abandon his country’s weapons‐of‐mass‐destruction (WMD) programs. The first George W. Bush administration attributed the dismantlement agreement to a consistently applied policy of sanctions and isolation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. A few years later, Ambassador John Bolton and hardline neoconservatives, who espoused the implementation of a similar policy towards North Korea, criticized the second Bush administration for prematurely easing pressure on Pyongyang.
However, despite eight years of a mostly confrontational approach towards Pyongyang during Barack Obama’s administrations, augmented sanctions have only motivated the Kim regime to accelerate its development of nuclear weapons. During Obama’s presidency, North Korea conducted four of its six nuclear tests (in 2009, 2013 and two in 2016). President Donald Trump’s steps to further increase economic and diplomatic pressure during his first year in office resulted in a September 2017 nuclear blast with a magnitude that dwarfed previous tests conducted by the recalcitrant state.
Disappointed with the failure of sanctions to bring about dismantlement and aware of intelligence estimates placing North Korea a heartbeat away from achieving the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons, Ambassador Bolton publicly considered—shortly before being appointed national security advisor—toppling the Kim regime by military force. President Trump and Secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin, however, credit sanctions with pushing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and view the vague declaration that concluded the June 2018 Trump‐Kim summit as a positive development to be followed by further negotiations. Yet, almost 12 months of negotiations, including a second summit in February 2019, have failed to bring about dismantlement. In this regard, the administration insists on a rapid and complete North Korean dismantlement prior to lifting sanctions.
The purpose of this article is to examine the changing nature of Libya’s 1969-2003 nuclear quest in order to understand why an apparently similar U.S. policy of sanctions and isolation led to different reactions in Tripoli and Pyongyang. The historical analysis in the following sections illustrates that although sanctions played an important role in persuading Libya to discard its WMD programs, so did the close cooperation between Libya and the United States against Islamic elements that threatened their mutual interests.
Like Libya, North Korea found itself isolated from the West and near economic collapse in the early years of the new millennium. However, almost a decade of growing disappointment with the U.S. failure to implement its 1994 Agreed Framework commitments to construct light‐water reactors in North Korea and normalize bilateral relations had increased mutual suspicion and mistrust. In the late 1990s, after five years of a nuclear freeze, Pyongyang began a clandestine uranium‐enrichment project that eventually provided the Bush administration with a rationale to pull out of the framework in late 2002.
Incongruously, while the United States and Qadhafi were cooperating against radical Islam, the White House in 2002 lumped North Korea, Iran and Iraq together as members of an “axis of evil.” The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 demonstrated the administration’s resolve to pursue regime change against these rogue states. This left North Korea with no choice but to accelerate its quest for a nuclear deterrent.
More than 15 years have passed since North Korea left the Nuclear Non‐Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Qadhafi gave up his WMD programs, but U.S. policy makers continue to overlook the key lesson of these twin events. In order to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, sanctions—efficacious as they may be—should be accompanied by a credible message of trust building and the prospect of a better future for the targeted regime. In the case of Libya, a U.S. message was delivered through an offer of assistance to Qadhafi in his fight against radical Islamic elements that challenged his regime.
The concluding section of the article examines the challenges in applying lessons from Libya’s case to North Korea’s. It suggests that in order to overcome these challenges and break the nuclear gridlock, the Trump administration should withdraw U.S. demands for complete dismantlement within a short period of time and embrace South Korean President Moon Jae‐in’s long‐term trust‐building approach.
Scope and Methodology
The tenacity with which the Qadhafi regime pursued nuclear weapons, as well as the rationale behind that quest, did not remain constant, but rather changed throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. While in the 1970s Qadhafi was beseeching the Chinese and Soviets to provide Libya with off‐the‐shelf nuclear weapons, during the 1980s and early 1990s Tripoli was in no rush. Then, from the mid‐1990s, Libya accelerated efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent by contacting the A.Q. Khan network. Significantly, during the 1970s and 1980s, Qadhafi and his son, Saif Aleslam, presented nuclear weapons as a means of defending Arab interests in a looming military confrontation with Israel. However, from the mid‐1990s onwards, they were portrayed by Qadhafi as necessary for defending Arab sovereignty and maintaining peace and stability in the region.
In order to account for these changes, this article examines Libya’s relations with its allies and adversaries, its perception of changes in the global structure, and its movement on what can be termed the “Kenneth Waltz scale.” According to Waltz, any state’s motives can run from self‐preservation to universal hegemony. Notably, Libya’s movement on Waltz’s scale was affected by changes to indicators of its hard power, such as economic capabilities, but also to those of its soft power: its success in promoting Qadhafi’s Pan‐Arab values.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Qadhafi continuously failed to create and lead an Arab coalition of states that would join in implementing a policy of violent resistance to Western and Zionist imperialism. Tripoli’s support of and involvement in international terrorism did, however, invite punishing U.S. and UN sanctions from the mid‐1980s. By the late 1990s, disillusioned with the dream of leading the Arab world and suffering economic atrophy and domestic instability, Qadhafi’s regime came close to the self‐preservation end of Waltz’s scale. He renounced support of terror, facilitated rapprochement and cooperation with the United States and eventually brought about the dismantlement agreement of December 2003. North Korea’s case is quite different.
In Pursuit of Arab Unity and War
Immediately after coming to power in the September 1969 revolution, Qadhafi, enchanted by Nasserism in his teens, embraced his idol’s Pan‐Arab ideology and ambition. This was clearly illustrated by the Constitutional Proclamation his Revolutionary Command Council released on December 11, 1969. It vowed to “liberate every square inch of land desecrated by imperialism and remove the obstacles which impede Arab unity from the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean.” Liberating Palestine was of the utmost importance: “The revolution in the Libyan Arab Republic puts the Palestine cause in the forefront of the fateful causes of the Arabs…. We pledge all of our material and moral capabilities to the Palestinian cause…. The way to Palestine is the unification of the entire Arab nation to strike a simple blow.”
From Qadhafi’s perspective, Arab disintegration was a disease created by imperialistic forces; the cure was the expulsion of those forces from Arab land. The new Libyan regime announced that it would not allow U.S. and British forces to remain stationed in Libya. Qadhafi also urged Malta to adopt a similar policy and abolish NATO’s presence on its soil, cleansing the Mediterranean of the forces of imperialism.
In the early 1970s, however, the Nixon administration did not perceive Qadhafi’s regime as a challenge to U.S. policy. On the contrary, Qadhafi’s disapproval of the attempted communist coup in July 1971 in Sudan, his support of Sadat’s decision to expel Soviet experts from Egypt, and his allegiance to the U.S.‐backed regime in Islamabad during its 1971 war against Soviet‐backed India cast his image as anti‐communist. So did his Third Universal Theory, which rejected both capitalism and communism. Commenting on Soviet‐Arab relations in a 1973 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Qadhafi said: “The Russians are exploiting the U.S. in spreading hatred for the Americans in the Arab world. We are of course against the United States when we speak about it as a colonialist power, but we don’t want to serve, in such a manner, the Soviet interest in the region.”
Thus, during the early 1970s, decision makers in Washington sought to promote cordial relations with Libya, as a summary statement of the National Security Council’s Washington Special Action Group evinces: Our present strategy is to seek to establish satisfactory relations with the new regime. The return to our balance of payments and the security of the U.S. investments in oil are considered our primary interests…. We also wish to protect European dependence on Libyan oil. It is literally the only “irreplaceable” oil in the world, from the point of view both of quality and geographic location.
Consequently, in the early 1970s, there were no major U.S. acts or proclamations that might have been perceived by the new regime in Tripoli as a challenge to its sovereignty. On the contrary, between 1970 and 1972, U.S. intelligence and the State Department were reportedly providing Qadhafi with information that helped him to thwart internal and external plots to overthrow his regime.
Successfully maneuvering between the two superpowers and under the banner of Arab unity, Qadhafi saw himself as the messiah of the Arab nation, not the leader of “a weak state with a small population” created by Italy out of three separate parts (Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan) in the early 20th century. Libya’s resources—mainly financial—were to be combined with those of other Arab countries in order to create a formidable force that could recapture lost Arab pride, first and foremost by liberating Palestine. In terms of Waltz’s scale, Qadhafi was dreaming of regional hegemony rather than mere self‐preservation.
All that was needed for an Arab confrontation with Israel was an Arab nuclear equalizer. Qadhafi, however, could not wait until Libya would perhaps be able to achieve an independent nuclear fuel cycle and weaponization capabilities. It is in this context that Qadhafi’s endeavor to acquire off‐the‐shelf nuclear weapons from China in 1970 must be understood. Despite Nasser’s skepticism about Tripoli’s chances in persuading Beijing to provide it with such weapons, the Libyan premier, Abdul Salam Jallud, was sent via Cairo to the Chinese capital. His plea was indeed rejected.
Arab plans for the October 1973 military campaign against Israel, and Israel’s nuclear alert during the fighting, further illustrated the Arab need for a nuclear deterrent. According to Mohammad Heikal, Al‐Aharam’s editor‐in‐chief and a close confidant of President Sadat, Egyptian war plans were confined to territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six‐Day War. Significantly, Arab success on the battlefield during the initial stage of the 1973 fighting, Israel’s heavy losses, and its failed counterattack in Sinai caused Tel Aviv to arm missiles with nuclear warheads and target Egyptian and Syrian headquarters near Cairo and Damascus. Thus, the October War clarified two things: in the absence of a nuclear deterrent, the Arabs would be limited in their plans to liberate Palestine, and any substantial Arab battlefield sucess might lead to catastrophe.
Fifteen years after the war, Qadhafi expressed the rationale behind Libya’s quest for nuclear weapons: The Arabs must possess the atomic bomb to defend themselves… until they liberate Palestine. We undertake not to drop the atomic bomb on anyone around us, but we must possess it…. If there is going to be a game using atomic bombs, then it should not be played against the Arab nation.
To Qadhafi’s misfortune, the October War set in motion a process that brought about a volte‐face in Israel‐Egypt relations and led to the March 1979 peace treaty. Egypt’s strategic decision to forgo armed struggle for the liberation of Palestine in return for the Sinai Peninsula was not received well by Qadhafi. In an interview he gave to New York Times correspondent Youssef Ibrahim in December 1979, he said, “Sadat is as finished as the [Iranian] Shah, and the Americans are backing a loser there.”
In spite of Egypt’s “betrayal” of the Arab cause, Qadhafi remained obsessed with creating a formidable union to carry out his political credo. Libya began subverting moderate Arab regimes that were supportive of U.S. efforts to bring stability to the Middle East through negotiations. The highlight of these subversive activities was a 1974 Libyan plot to assassinate President Sadat. Uncovered by the Egyptians, it ended bilateral cooperation, including discussions on a joint project for the construction of a 40 megawatt (MW) dual‐purpose nuclear reactor.
Although Libyan and U.S. political interests in the Middle East were diametrically opposed by the second half of the 1970s, bilateral economic relations remained virtually intact. Libya’s exports to the United States climbed from $216 million in 1973 to $2,188 million in 1976; in 1977, the United States became the major importer of Libyan oil. Concurrently, between 1973 and 1976, U.S. exports to Libya almost tripled, from $104 million to $277 million.
Qadhafi therefore believed that he could influence U.S. policy. In December 1979, he remarked: We wish to intensify our dialogue with the United States. We think it is possible to neutralise America in her view towards the Middle East, and we want to continue to talk…. with the hope now of a new policy vis‐à‐vis the Middle East emerging during President Carter’s second term.
Washington was also signaling its willingness to settle its differences with Libya through negotiations. In December 1979, President Carter sent the following message to Qadhafi: “I would like to go on with an even closer relationship with Libya in the future…. That is clearly in our mutual interest.”
Thus, in the second half of the 1970s, while maintaining open channels to Washington and under the illusion that Arab unity would soon be achieved—albeit by subversion and force—Libya remained an ambitious aspirant for regional hegemony, far from the self‐preservation end of Waltz’s scale. Qadhafi was still trying to promote his bellicose agenda on the Israel‐Palestine issue and thus was in urgent need of a nuclear deterrent. He may also have hoped a nuclear deterrent would allow him to pursue subversive activities without fear of the threat of harsh retaliation that loomed over Libya during its border war with Egypt in July 1977.
Consequently, in the second half of the 1970s, Libya continued to seek off‐the‐shelf nuclear weapons. Qadhafi had offered, as early as 1976, a substantial reward to anyone who would provide Libya with a nuclear weapon. In the late 1970s, after the Israel‐Egypt peace negotiations were launched, Qadhafi asked the Soviet Union to provide him with nuclear weapons so that Libya and the Arab war coalition, impaired by Egypt’s betrayal, could attain strategic parity with Israel.
Simultaneously, Libya was searching for alternatives to Egyptian assistance in acquiring an independent nuclear fuel cycle. In 1975, Libya and the Soviet Union signed an agreement for the construction of the Tajoura Nuclear Research Center, including a 10 MW light‐water research reactor that became operational in August 1981. In return, Tripoli was asked to ratify the NPT, which it had signed in 1968, and to conclude a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1976, Moscow and Tripoli also agreed that Atomenergoexport would construct a 440 MW dual‐purpose nuclear reactor on the coast of the Gulf of Sidra for power and water desalination. However, this $4 billion project never came to fruition and was aborted in the mid‐1980s.
Other major attempts to promote Libya’s indigenous program for developing a nuclear fuel cycle involved the United States and France. In 1975, the U.S. administration blocked a prospective deal between Gulf and General Atomics, a Los Angeles‐based corporation, and Libya for the supply of a nuclear‐fueled electric‐power station that would have enabled Libya to produce plutonium. A year later, international pressure torpedoed Franco‐Libyan negotiations to supply Libya with a research reactor and a 600 MW nuclear‐power reactor.
The Era of Reagan and Mubarak
Key developments in the early 1980s made Qadhafi realize that, despite his decade‐long efforts to achieve Arab unity and maintain good relations with both superpowers, such unity was not at hand; he had to choose sides in the Cold War. While the Israel‐Egypt peace treaty remained intact after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Libya’s relations with the United States deteriorated rapidly following the inauguration of the Reagan administration. Threatening rhetoric aside, however, the administration was merely trying, with little success, to harness Europe to its policy of isolating Libya. Militarily, the United States mostly refrained from challenging Qadhafi’s rule, and Soviet security guarantees to Libya seemed reassuring. Thus, in the absence of an imminent economic and military threat and with the goal of Arab unity out of reach, Qadhafi took no further initiatives to acquire an off‐the‐shelf nuclear deterrent, nor was the Libyan effort to achieve an independent nuclear fuel cycle making any significant progress.
Unlike its predecessor, the Reagan administration perceived Libya’s regional aspirations as related to a Soviet effort to enlarge Moscow’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and Africa. Soon after Reagan entered the Oval Office, Secretary of State Haig diagnosed Qadhafi as “a cancer that has to be removed,” and the toppling of Qadhafi became the core of U.S. policy on Libya. Furthermore, by confronting Qadhafi, the Reagan administration sought to rehabilitate the U.S. image in the Middle East, tarnished by the Carter administration’s failure to deal sternly with the Iranian regime during the 1979 hostage crisis.
The Reagan administration’s first step was to close down the Libyan embassy in Washington in May 1981. Three months later, as a challenge to Libyan maritime claims in the Gulf of Sidra, the Sixth Fleet launched an exercise that crossed the 32‐degree 30‐minute line that the Carter administration, in consultation with the Libyans, had designated as the southernmost boundary for U.S. naval and air maneuvers. During the exercise, coordinated with Egyptian maneuvers along the border with Libya, two American F‐14 Tomcats downed two Libyan Su‐22 fighters.
The clear signals from the Reagan administration did not elude Qadhafi, who turned to the Soviets for security guarantees. Moscow, whose relations with Washington at that time were regressing back to Cold War enmity, did not fail Qadhafi. Following the August 1981 clash at the Gulf of Sidra and Sadat’s assassination two months later, the Soviet Union publicly warned against any attempt by a foreign power to attack Libya. Moreover, by the early 1980s, Soviet‐Libyan arms deals had provided the Libyan Army with an arsenal that could match and deter the Egyptian Army across the border.
Regardless of whether it came as a direct consequence of Soviet warnings or Sadat’s assassination, or both, the United States would not pose a military challenge to Libya again until the mid‐1980s. Unlike Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s new president, believed that his army was not prepared for a confrontation with Libya and preferred to refrain from any action that would worsen their volatile relations. Thus, the Reagan administration, instead of trying to provoke Qadhafi into a military confrontation, concentrated its efforts on stifling the Libyan economy.
In March 1982, the United States embargoed all Libyan crude oil and prohibited the sale of sophisticated oil and gas equipment to Libya. As a result, Tripoli’s revenues were instantly cut by a third. However, instead of following the American example, as the Reagan administration had hoped, the European Community (EC) soon replaced the United States as the leading importer of Libyan oil products. In the two subsequent decades, Germany, Italy and Spain accounted for 80 percent of Libyan exports, while 75 percent of Libya’s imports originated in Europe. Some European countries, such as Italy, to which Libya was $800 million in arrears, feared that confronting Qadhafi would result in the loss of this debt. Others, like Britain, argued that, historically speaking, economic sanctions had proven to have little effect. In addition, most countries in the EC believed that addressing the Israel‐Palestine conundrum, rather than attempting to isolate and topple the Qaddafi regime, was the key to dealing with Libya’s aggression.
Significantly, although the Reagan administration failed to stifle Libya’s robust oil‐based economy, Qadhafi’s goal of Arab unity to liberate Palestine remained elusive. Thus, Libya backed off somewhat in its quest for nuclear weapons. Research took place mostly at the Tajoura Nuclear Research Center, where, in 1984, without the knowledge of the IAEA, Libyan scientists began conducting experiments in which plutonium was separated from irradiated uranium. At the same time, Libya was pursuing uranium enrichment. In 1983, Tripoli turned to Moscow in an attempt to purchase a uranium‐conversion facility capable of producing uranium hexafluoride (UF6), but it was rejected. Between 1982 and 1992, Libya also made efforts to construct centrifuges based on the blueprints of a German engineer. However, despite reports of a single centrifuge that was “running at one point during the project, Libya never enriched any uranium, and no UF6 was introduced [to the centrifuges].”
Operation El Dorado Canyon
On April 15, 1986, U.S.‐Libyan relations plummeted to an all‐time low after President Reagan gave the green light to an airstrike on Libyan terrorist camps, military installations and the Bab al‐Aziziyya complex, Qadhafi’s residence. Reagan’s decision to strike was linked to a surge in terror attacks supported by Libya against Western (mostly U.S.) interests between 1984 and 1986. However, the airstrike was also launched against the backdrop of continuing European reluctance to join the U.S. economic embargo on Libya and the thaw in Soviet‐U.S. relations after Gorbachev’s rise to power. Crucially, there is no indication that Libya attempted to accelerate its nuclear quest in the wake of the airstrike. Although A.Q. Khan, as early as January 1984, offered to sell centrifuge technology to Libya, his offer was declined. Only in 1991 did Khan manage to interest Libya in purchasing information concerning centrifuge technology, but “no complete centrifuges were delivered to Libya as part of this deal.” What kept Libya from accelerating its quest for a nuclear deterrent in the second half of the 1980s?
Instead of goading Europe into imposing sanctions on Libya, the U.S. airstrike widened the political cleavage between the Reagan administration and European capitals. After the attack, the U.S. media revealed that France and Spain had refused to grant the attack force permission to use their airspace. Moreover, most of Europe’s leaders publicly disapproved of the attack; thousands protested it in the streets, and opinion polls showed that the public opposed it. The only exception was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who stood firm behind her decision to allow U.S. bombers to take off from Lakenheath air base. However, Thatcher continued to adhere to the European consensus to the extent that she rejected U.S. pleas for London to impose economic sanctions on Libya. Whether it was the failure of the airstrike to bring about an end to Qadhafi’s rule, Europe’s disapproval of the U.S. action, or perhaps both, the United States refrained from military action against Libya for the rest of Reagan’s presidency.
The turn of the decade marked the end of the bipolar era—a development Tripoli perceived as auspicious. According to Qadhafi’s son, Saif Aleslam: Libya hoped for a more prudent policy [from the Bush administration] and, in fact, the anti‐Libyan frenzy of the Reagan era diminished. But, more important, in the following year the Soviet Union fell, putting an end to the Cold War. Libya suddenly seemed less important to Washington, and when Iraq invaded Kuwait, shifting world attention away from the Mediterranean, America’s hostility toward Libya receded.
Thus, Qadhafi publicly expressed his intention to adjust U.S.‐Libya relations and, as a gesture of goodwill, announced that he would attempt to bring about the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon.
Consequently, Libya was in no rush to acquire a nuclear deterrent. In 1992, referring to its efforts to achieve an independent nuclear fuel cycle, Robert Walker wrote, “most experts conceded that Libya was little closer to developing a nuclear bomb than it was in the early 1970s. In fact, Hans Blix [director general of the IAEA] discovered that Libya’s sole research reactor was lying dormant since the Soviet scientists who operated it had left the country in June 1991.”
Although Qadhafi hoped to start a new chapter in U.S.‐Libya relations following Reagan’s departure from the White House, a decade of bad blood between consecutive Republican administrations and Qadhafi had created an immutable aversion to the Libyan leader. According to Stefan Halper, who advised President Bush on national security, Qadhafi “was thought to be a monster… [and] you don’t do business with the devil.” Thus, in contrast to Libya’s expectations, the collapse of the Soviet Union worked to its disadvantage.
On August 2, 1990, a few hours after Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush presented his global security outlook during a visit to the Aspen Institute. The threat of global conflict as a result of a possible clash with the Soviets in Europe was replaced with fears of regional instability precipitated by “terrorism[,]… renegade regimes and unpredictable rulers” in pursuit of WMD. Significantly, Libya’s involvement in terrorism put it on a collision course not only with the United States, but also with Europe.
In October 1991, France issued international arrest warrants for four Libyan officials allegedly involved in the bombing of UTA flight 722 from Congo to Paris on September 19, 1989. A month later (November 1991), Britain charged two Libyans with the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, and demanded their extradition. Qadhafi’s refusal to hand over the implicated Libyans and assume responsibility for two of the more horrifying terror attacks of the 1980s provoked international sanctions. On March 31, 1992, the UN Security Council (UNSC) imposed a comprehensive ban on arms sales to Libya and a flight embargo into or out of the country.
The sanctions on Libya were further expanded after Bill Clinton entered the White House in January 1993. Thus, on November 11, 1993, the UNSC passed a resolution freezing selected Libyan assets abroad and prohibiting the exportation to Libya of equipment vital to its petroleum industry. In an article published the following year in Foreign Affairs, Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, named Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Iraq as “backlash states,” blaming them for suppressing human rights and pursuing radical ideologies and WMD. Lake also clarified that the administration was committed to actively containing these states through isolation and diplomatic and economic pressure. Putting words into action, in August 1996, President Clinton signed the Iran‐Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which required the administration to punish foreign companies that make new investments of over $40 million in Libya’s petroleum sector.
The U.S. and international sanctions imposed on Libya proved deleterious to its economy, causing oil production to decrease by 8 percent on average per annum. In 1980, Libya’s revenues from oil stood at $22 billion; by 1998, they had dropped to $6 billion. In addition, the sanctions sabotaged Qadhafi’s plan to develop both agriculture and industry. Thus, while in 1992 Libya’s GDP stood at $33.8 billion, by 2003—the year in which the U.S. sanctions were lifted—Libya’s GDP had plummeted to $26.2 billion. In terms of GDP per capita, a decline of around 37 percent was registered during the aforementioned years (from $7,370 to $4,682). Furthermore, the aviation sanctions forced Libya to import products by sea or over land, causing commodity prices to surge and contributing to high inflation rates (around 9 percent).
Qadhafi, who expected the Arab world to support him in defying the sanctions, was bitterly disappointed. In fact, the Arab world was not merely shunning Qadhafi as an outcast for supporting terrorism; it also rejected his leadership, strategic goals and policies. Arab support of the Oslo peace process, initiated in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians with the purpose of promoting a two‐states‐for‐two‐peoples solution, was a clear betrayal of Qadhafi’s dream of an undivided Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. In Africa, Qadhafi’s efforts to seek leadership and grandeur by creating a United States of Africa were met with staunch resistance from Libya’s Arab neighbors in the late 1990s. Thus, bereft of Arab support and with a deteriorating economy, Libya was descending towards the self‐preservation end of Waltz’s scale.
It was against this backdrop that the rationale for Libya’s quest for nuclear weapons changed. By the mid‐1990s, Qadhafi portrayed nuclear arms as a means to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East, rather than to enable the Arab world to wage war against Israel. In June 1995, following the NPT Review and Extension Conference, he declared: “Peace will also be in danger as long as there is no balance and nuclear deterrence in the region…. The Arabs should posses[s] this weapon to defend themselves. It would be legitimate and for the sake of peace.”
Although the rationale behind Libya’s quest for nuclear weapons changed during the 1990s in line with Libya’s descent into self‐preservation, the quest did not end. In 1997, after the Clinton administration had continuously rejected Qadhafi’s efforts via “various Arab interlocutors” to open back channels for negotiations, Libya reinvigorated its efforts to achieve a nuclear deterrent. Libyan intelligence re‐established contact with the A.Q. Khan network and began purchasing know‐how and off‐the‐shelf material, equipment and designs for creating uranium‐based nuclear weapons.
The George W. Bush administration later portrayed Qadhafi’s December 2003 decision to end Libya’s nuclear quest and dismantle its WMD programs as caused by the bite that sanctions had taken out of Libya’s economy and Qadhafi’s fear of a fate similar to that of Saddam Hussein. However, an examination of the historical narrative suggests that such an explanation is too simplistic, overlooking evidence that tells a different story.
There is no dispute that, by the mid‐1990s, U.S. and international sanctions had wreaked havoc on Libya’s economy and destroyed the welfare system upon which the stability of the regime was based. Many Libyans who had once been part of the overblown public sector found themselves unemployed. The lucky few who managed to keep their jobs saw inflation skyrocket while their income remained static. Electric power cuts, a lack of water and deteriorating medical services were also clear signs of the regime’s inability to deal with the situation.
Libya’s economic atrophy created a fertile breeding ground for persecuted fundamentalist Muslim organizations to pursue their goal of toppling Qadhafi. The Libyan leader, for his part, perceived these organizations as a danger not only to the stability of his regime but also to Libyan modernization and progress. In June and September 1995, Islamic uprisings in the city of Benghazi spread to other parts of central Libya, and military reinforcements had to be sent from other areas of the country to quell the violence. The following year, clashes between the regime and the opposition spread to eastern Libya, and amidst two attempted coups (in September and November 1996) an attempt was made on Qadhafi’s life.
Although by June 1998, the Qadhafi regime had managed to subdue the Islamic opposition, putting its main activists and leaders behind bars, Islamic fundamentalism had become a continuous threat to the regime that could reemerge under the right circumstances. In order to ensure that it remained dormant, the regime had to resuscitate the Libyan economy and to hunt down opposition forces, not only in Libya but also abroad, where their people and assets were out of the regime’s reach. For that purpose, Tripoli needed the support of the United States, Britain and the international community. As a first step towards gathering international support, Libya distanced itself from international terrorism. Since 1993, there has not been a single reported case of Libyan sponsorship of terror attacks. Furthermore, Libya stopped assisting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the mid‐1990s and expelled the Abu Nidal Organization from its territory in 1999.
A major breakthrough in Libya’s relations with the United States was made in August 1998, after Britain and the Clinton administration agreed to Qadhafi’s 1993 proposal to extradite the Lockerbie suspects to a third country. Qadhafi, for his part, accepted the U.S.‐British request to put the suspects on trial under Scottish law in the Netherlands. In April 1999, after Libya turned over the suspects to Dutch authorities, UN sanctions on Tripoli were suspended. Subsequently, in May and October 1999, the United States and Libya held secret negotiations in Geneva and London. The U.S. delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk, who later wrote: Libya’s representatives were ready to put everything on the table, saying that… the United States and Libya faced a common threat from Islamic fundamentalism. In that context, they said, Libya would actively co‐operate in the campaign against al‐Qaeda and would end all support for Palestinian “rejectionist” groups, endorse U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East and help in conflict resolution in Africa.
Significantly, these negotiations also reflected a change in U.S. policy on Libya. By the turn of the century, the Clinton administration had abandoned the Reagan and George H.W. Bush policy of toppling Qadhafi. It was understood that he could stay in power. In February 2000, this new U.S. perspective on Libya was presented by Roland Neumann, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, in the winter edition of Middle East Policy: … Libya is not Iraq. We do not seek to maintain sanctions until there is a change of regime in Tripoli. We have seen definite changes in Libya’s behavior, specifically declining support for terrorism and increasing support for peace processes in the Middle East and Africa.
The seeds of U.S.‐Libya cooperation that had been sown towards the end of the Clinton administration’s second term grew, developing into a joint campaign against radical Islam during George W. Bush’s early years in the White House.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Musa Kusa, the head of Libyan intelligence, met with senior U.S. officials in London to discuss ways of countering Islamic terror, and Libyan intelligence began assisting in apprehending terrorists in Afghanistan and Britain. In this regard, Libya disclosed to U.S. and British intelligence the methods extremist Muslim groups were using to relay messages via the Internet and transfer money to and from different banks in Europe. In order to facilitate this cooperation, Libya and the United States established a secure intelligence channel. Reflecting upon U.S.‐Libyan cooperation, Saif Aleslam Qadhafi noted in the spring of 2003 that “in the new millennium, the old disputes have given way to a shared Libyan‐American strategy against an international enemy.”
Actions taken by the Bush administration conveyed a similar notion. On September 25, 2001, the United States froze the assets of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan that began in the following month forced leading figures in the Libyan opposition, who had taken refuge under the Taliban, to flee the country. Some, like Abdulla Sadeq and Abu Munder al‐Saidi, were caught in East Asia and later extradited to Libya.
Nevertheless, the unresolved Lockerbie and WMD issues prevented Libya from unlocking the full potential of its ongoing dialogue and cooperation with the United States. U.S. sanctions on Libya remained intact, while UN sanctions were merely suspended. Thus, as early as 2002, months before the invasion of Iraq, Libya began negotiating with representatives of the Lockerbie victims’ families in an effort to reach an understanding with regard to their compensation. Simultaneously, U.S. and Libyan officials met in London to discuss outstanding issues, including Libya’s WMD programs. When Mike O’Brien, the British minister of state for foreign affairs, visited Libya in August 2002, Qadhafi assured him that Libya would be cooperative on the issue.
It took Qadhafi’s son, Saif Aleslam, seven more months to approach British intelligence with an offer to “clear the air about the rumor that there are weapons of mass destruction in Libya” Significantly, however, the Libyan move was made a few days before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moreover, after the negotiations between Libya’s head of intelligence, Musa Kusa, and his British and U.S.counterparts had begun, the Libyan side was initially reluctant to admit that Libya had a nuclear weapons program and later unwilling to reveal its full extent. Thus, the invasion itself and the toppling of Saddam did not panic nor provoke Qadhafi into discarding his nuclear program.
According to Saif Aleslam, “the key to the rapprochement… was reassuring Qadhafi that the United States and Britain had no secret agenda for toppling his regime. Once he was persuaded, anything was possible.” In August 2003, Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to compensate each of the victims’ families with $2.7 million. A month later, the international sanctions on Libya were removed, and on December 19 of that year, the United States and Libya reached an agreement on disarming Libya’s WMD programs in exchange for lifting U.S. sanctions and normalizing relations.
North Korea and the “Libyan Model”
Two and a half decades after the collapse of the Agreed Framework, North Korea’s heavily sanctioned economy keeps it close to the self‐preservation end of Waltz’s scale and interested in normalizing relations with the West. However, unlike in Libya’s case, successive U.S. administrations have failed to leverage sanctions into building mutual trust and cooperation with Pyongyang. Two nuclear deals struck between the United States and North Korea in 2007 and 2012 quickly collapsed as a result of conflicting interpretations of their content and the administration’s insistence on speeding up dismantlement while delaying implementation of U.S. commitments. These failed deals have further undermined U.S. credibility in Pyongyang, resulting in a boost of its research into nuclear weaponization.
The speed and scope of nuclear dismantlement, sanctions lifting and normalization remain the main points of contention between North Korea and the United States. A few months prior to the conclusion of the 1994 Agreed Framework, Kim Il‐sung shared North Korea’s fear of a rapid and comprehensive dismantlement with his close friend, Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk: “They [the U.S.] want us to take off our shirt, our coat and now our trousers, and after that we will be nude, absolutely naked…. We cannot accept that.”
In this regard, the Obama administration’s military intervention in the 2011 Libyan tribal conflict—a move that ended Qadhafi’s rule eight years after the Libyan leader had stripped himself of his WMD programs in a deal with the United States and Britain—raised a red flag in Pyongyang. In the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea had settled on a gradual dismantlement of its nuclear program within a space of nine years; the 2011 Qadhafi ordeal will likely prompt Pyongyang to insist on a wider margin of security in any future agreement.
Aware of the Bush and Obama as well as the Lee and Park administrations’ failure to force upon Pyongyang nuclear dismantlement within a short period of time, the incumbent South Korean president, Moon Jae‐in, is pursuing a different approach for dealing with the rapidly developing nuclear capabilities and arsenal of North Korea. Although Moon acknowledges the importance of continued economic and diplomatic pressure in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, he understands that rapid dismantlement is an unrealistic scenario. His aim is for a deal in which North Korea would first freeze and then gradually dismantle its nuclear program.
Apparently, however, the Trump administration is skeptical of President Moon’s approach, clinging to rhetoric that echoes the Bush and Obama administrations’ insistence on a rapid North Korean dismantlement prior to substantial trust building and normalization steps by the United States. If the Trump administration fails to adopt President Moon’s approach, negotiations with Pyongyang in the wake of the second Trump‐Kim summit are likely to remain in gridlock. Consequently, sanctions would continue to serve as a double‐edged sword, goading North Korea into further upgrading the level of its nuclear research and activity, rather than encouraging to compromise.
During the 1993-94 negotiations that led to the Agreed Framework with North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci overcame powerful opposition within the Clinton administration and persuaded the president that the North Koreans were unlikely to accept a deal in which they “have to do everything up front.” Almost a decade later, Secretary of State Powell and National Security Advisor Rice convinced President Bush to negotiate with Libya through positive incentives. They did so despite neoconservative opposition in the Pentagon and the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, headed by John Bolton.
It is hoped that the analysis presented in this article would encourage officials within the Trump administration to follow the same logic by bringing U.S. policy on North Korea into closer alignment with that of President Moon Jae‐in. The Moon administration, for its part, should proceed carefully, refraining from substantially easing sanctions on North Korea before it freezes its nuclear activities and reaches an agreement with the United States on a long‐term roadmap for trust building and dismantlement.