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Western Press Review: The Libyan Turnabout On WMD

  • Don Hill

Prague, 22 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- What Britain's "Financial Times" refers to, with British understatement, as "a pleasant surprise" -- Libya's decision to end its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs -- arouses a flurry of commentary in Western newspapers today.


The "Financial Times" goes on to say in an editorial: "Opponents of the Iraq war said it showed disarmament could be achieved by diplomacy. What [the Libyan action] really illustrates is that sticks and carrots can be combined, in certain circumstances and certain countries, to produce disarmament."

Libya is to be rewarded by the ending of a number of long-standing sanctions in return for three disarmament commitments. These are, the editorial says: "First, Libya has owned up to nuclear enrichment research whose only logical purpose was military. It is to sign an extra protocol to allow broader inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency of its nuclear facilities, just as Iran did last week. Libya may not have violated its non-proliferation treaty obligations, but its confession certainly highlights the gaps in that treaty's standard safeguards.

"Second, Libya has owned up to a chemical weapons program -- probably fairly rudimentary -- that has long been suspected. It is now to join the chemical weapons convention and submit to inspections under it.

"Third, and in some ways most surprising, it has agreed to a restriction on the range of its missiles that generally applies to exporters, not importers such as Libya."


"The Times" says in an editorial that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi decided on his own volition to abandon his WMD activities. But the timing clearly was driven by what the editorial calls the "demonstration effect of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq."

The editorial says: "The negotiations that led to Libya's commitment to disclose and dismantle its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs began last March, days before American and British forces entered Iraq. The deal was finalized days after the capture of Saddam Hussein. The initiative came not from Washington or London, but from Moammar Gadhafi, and there is nothing coincidental about the timing. The demonstration effect that military action would have on other actual or potential weapons proliferators was a key argument in favor of military action against Saddam.

"Had Iraq got away with its 12-year defiance of the United Nations, the United States and Britain maintained, non-proliferation would be a lost cause. These arguments may not have convinced anti-war lobbies in the West; but they clearly impressed the Libyans."

The newspaper concludes by identifying, in its terms, the "losers" -- people who condemned the U.S.-led Iraq invasion, and the "winners" -- those who commanded it. It says: "Linkage in politics is risky. But after a remarkable week in which Saddam was captured and Libya converted, the losers are those who argued that war would make the Middle East a more dangerous place. The winners inhabit Iraq and Libya, as well as Downing Street and the White House."


William Rees-Mogg, a commentator for "The Times," expands on that thought. It should be evident by now, he writes, that attacking a power so overwhelmingly powerful as the United States, as Al-Qaeda did on 11 September 2001 is a dreadful mistake.

The writer says: "Only a couple of weeks ago the success of the post-September 11 American strategy was still in some doubt. One might think that the doubts would prove to be unreal, but they were still being expressed by serious critics. In Britain, the critics included Robin Cook, Kenneth Clarke, as well as Menzies Campbell and the Liberal Democrats. In the United States they included Howard Dean, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and the Democrats generally."

Rees-Mogg writes: "Three events have changed all that: the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Libyan agreement and the much more limited agreement by Iran to allow international nuclear inspectors to make spot checks without warning."

The commentator writes: "Al-Qaeda had its Pearl Harbor on the [11th] of September. It was a sinister and secret attack. The parallel with Pearl Harbor does not consist only of the profound shock to all Americans. When the attack on Pearl Harbor was being planned, some of the senior Japanese officers recognized that the only possible outcome would be to awaken an American power that would eventually destroy Japan. Perhaps there were even senior figures in Al-Qaeda who had the same premonition. It is always a mistake to attack a power of extreme superiority, particularly the United States."


Gary Samore, a senior fellow for non-proliferation studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, writes in a commentary in the "Financial Times" that it would be nice to think that the Libyan model of carrots and sticks for disarmament would be applicable elsewhere, but that may be a vain wish.

Samore writes: "The disarmament agreement with Libya is a dramatic victory for traditional non-proliferation diplomacy -- the use of incentives and sanctions to persuade governments to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs in exchange for political and economic rewards.

"It is significant for two reasons. First, it signals a shift away from the use of military force and regime change, as applied to Iraq, to more traditional diplomatic methods of combating proliferation. Second, the U.S. and Britain hope that Moammar Gadhafi's example will encourage other leaders to follow suit."

Samore writes: "Sadly, the prospects for applying the Libya model to other countries are mixed. Most other countries in the Middle East view their weapons programs as vital to national defense and are unlikely to abandon them in the absence of fundamental changes in the region's security landscape. To persuade Syria to give up its chemical weapons program, or Israel to give up its nuclear capability, would probably require a permanent resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of genuinely peaceful relations throughout the region."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" says in an editorial that it joins the generally gleeful U.S. and Western response to the capture of Saddam Hussein and the taming of Gadhafi -- but with reservations.

The newspaper says: "We'd offer two caveats amid all of the cheering over the Gadhafi news. One is that the dictator continues to be responsible for killing hundreds of innocents, many of them Americans. In international relations and especially in the age of terror, moral trade-offs for the sake of security are sometimes necessary. But Mr. Bush's promise on Friday that Colonel Gadhafi 'can regain a secure and respected place among nations' goes too far in our copybooks. He may be giving up his weapons, but he isn't becoming a democrat. We'd still like to see him tried for his terrorism, a la Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam. Short of that but as a proven liar, Gadhafi must be held to his new commitments."

The editorial continues: "The other caution is about the limits of the Gadhafi outcome as a precedent, especially for North Korea and Iran. Both countries are much further along than Libya in their weapons plans, so they will have an even harder time giving them up. Both regimes have also previously agreed to honor global arms-control agreements, only to be caught lying and then repudiate those commitments."

The newspaper says: "As it basks in the Libyan surrender, we hope the Bush administration keeps the pressure on both of those charter members of the 'axis of evil.' Iran's most recent promise of renewed cooperation with UN inspectors isn't nearly as extensive, for example, as what Libya is now promising. And since its nuclear threat is the only reason North Korea has any claim on world attention, we doubt Kim Jong Il will ever give up his secret programs."


The German financial newspaper "Handelsblatt" says in an editorial that Gadhafi's gesture should be recognized fully. The newspaper says: "The fact is that the peaceful gesture should not be underestimated. It would be equally foolish and reckless to be hasty in maliciously attributing this as a sign of cowardice or possibly purely home-policy opportunism. For the fact that Libya is serious is borne out by deeds. It has already sent emissaries to Vienna to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency on verification procedure. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi also signaled that he is turning his back on rogue countries when he declared remorse for the Lockerbie victims."


However, the U.S. "Christian Science Monitor" says that U.S. leaders should not be overeager to reward Gadhafi for what is, after all, only one step toward many needed amends for past misdeeds.

The newspaper editorializes: "[U.S. President George W.] Bush should not be satisfied only with dismantling Libya's nuclear, chemical, and germ weapons programs, as welcome as that offer from Moammar Gadhafi is.

"To really ensure that the mercurial dictator (and his heirs-apparent sons) don't once again become a global menace, the United States must keep its economic sanctions -- including no oil investments -- until the Libyans can vote for their leaders in a fair election.

"After all, Mr. Bush demanded democracy for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as a first step toward reforming the terrorist-nurturing Middle East.

"He should demand the same of Mr. Gadhafi, whose past support of terrorists and wars compares to that of Mr. Hussein, who's now watching a democracy being built in Iraq even as he sits in U.S. custody awaiting trial."


Along with several other newspapers that have been critical of the foreign policy of the Bush administration, "The New York Times" backs away from a previous editorial stand.

It says: "In the past decade, Gadhafi has tried to shed the reputation for reckless behavior that he spent the two previous decades earning. Libya seems to have gotten itself out of the business of directly sponsoring international terrorism. It has been active in making amends for the notorious 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair has been an essential broker in that process, and Bush has played an important role as well."

The newspaper says: "By turning over two suspects for trial, acknowledging its complicity in the Lockerbie bombing and paying compensation to victims' families, Libya managed to persuade the UN Security Council to lift international sanctions in September. This page recommended lifting U.S. sanctions as well, but Bush left them in place pending further steps, most notably Libya's decision to end unconventional weapons programs. It is now clear that he was right to do so. Added U.S. pressure worked just as intended."


Commenting in "The Independent," Andreas Whittam Smith evidently hears quite a different drummer. The Libyan model, he writes, rather than vindicating the Bush policies, may demonstrate that the attack on Iraq was totally unnecessary. He asks: "Why carrots for Libya but only sticks for Iraq?"

He writes: "Libya's agreement with the U.S. and Britain to dismantle its program for developing weapons of mass destruction suggests that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an even greater mistake than we already realized. For Libya and Iraq share many similarities."

The writer raises the question: "What, then, explains the difference in approach? The hawks will argue that without the coalition's willingness to go to war in Iraq, and swift military victory, Colonel Gadhafi would never have come to the negotiating table.

"Or," he writes, "the difference may be this. Colonel Gadhafi is simply more intelligent, more adept and more far-sighted than Saddam Hussein. He could see how to cut a deal which left him in power, whereas Saddam could not work out how this might be achieved."

Smith says: "That still remains the question which George Bush and Tony Blair have to answer. For what purpose did soldiers and civilians die in Iraq? After Colonel Gadhafi's survival, even regime change becomes an unconvincing response."


"The Guardian" presents a question that also has been raised by newspapers and nations such as Egypt and Iran -- "If Libya can do it, why not Israel?"

The newspaper says: "What next? If weapons of mass destruction are a menace in unstable regions such as the Middle East, if their availability must be reduced, then logic begins to move us closer to the confrontation we never seek with the nuclear power we, let alone Messrs Bush and Blair, seldom mention: Israel."

It says: "If you put together a compote of usually reliable sources -- the Federation of American Scientists, Jane's Intelligence Review, the Stockholm Institute -- a tolerably clear picture emerges. Ariel Sharon probably has more than 200 nuclear warheads this morning. That makes Israel the world's fifth-largest nuclear power, boasting more bangs from Washington's bucks than Blair's Britain."

The editorial says: "An Israel bristling with nuclear hardware it cannot talk about and chemical horrors it could negotiate away does not make itself, or the world, any safer. On the contrary, it makes a hypocritical farce of too much Washington bargaining, buries too many initiatives deep down Hypocrisy Gulch and gives rogue groupings in ex-rogue states every reason to carry on developing, stealing or buying the devices that keep Mr. Blair awake at night."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba assisted with this report.)