If Gaddafi Had the Bomb

A Libya with nuclear weapons would have presented an entirely different and dangerous challenge to the current coalition. Most likely it would have blocked it. By some estimates Libya was only seven years away from possessing a usable nuclear weapon when it agreed to end its program in 2003. Given the Colonel's erratic and megalomaniacal behavior, who knows what he might have done?

Ridding Tripoli of its nuclear program was one of the great, if relatively unheralded, successes of non-proliferation in the atomic age. In hindsight this outcome through highly sensitive and secret negotiations changed history.

Within months of seizing power in a military coup, Gaddafi sought to purchase nuclear weapons from China (1969-71), France (1976), India (1978) and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Unsuccessful, he placed funds in a Swiss bank for purchasing "loose nukes" or fissionable materials from individuals or "below the horizon" groups. Still unable to make the purchases he sought, he opted for the construction of a complete nuclear fuel cycle with overtures to Argentinean, French and American companies and the recruitment of Egyptian scientists. Eventually he found a fully willing partner in A.Q. Kahn, the notorious head of the Pakistani nuclear program and leader of a clandestine network to sell technology.

Gaddafi's quest for nuclear weapons lasted 34 years with shifting motivations. Prestige and the wish to be seen as a leader in the Arab world was an early one, which when lacking in impact was repackaged into becoming an African potentate. Libya, he argued, had the military assets and political independence to lead the continent. Pointing to Israel's nuclear capabilities, he offered an "Islamic bomb" as part of a regional balance. At the same time, Libya was purchasing Mig-23 fighters and Scud missiles from the Soviet Union and was increasingly engaged in terrorist activities in Western Europe, such as the 1986 attack upon American servicemen at La Belle discotheque in Berlin, which led President Reagan to order the dropping of bombs in Tripoli, including on Gaddafi's personal residence. Following the downing in 1998 of Pan Am 103, resulting in the death of 270, the U.N. imposed economic and travel restrictions on Libya, reinforcing earlier American ones. Nevertheless, the Colonel Gaddafi was viewed in parts of the Middle East and Africa as someone who bravely stood up to the West.

So why did the supposedly erratic and unpredictable Libyan leader negotiate away his chemical, biological and nuclear programs?

First, the limitations on oil exports, upon which Tripoli was highly dependent, hurt. Revenue from these exports financed 95 percent of the nation's import of food, technology and equipment. The nation's economic stagnation and political isolation grew. The costs of the armament programs became a matter of concern. This was particularly true for Gaddafi's influential son, a British educated engineer, who came to believe that the nation's interests could better be served by giving up the nuclear quest.

Second, the technology required continued to depend not on indigenous acquisition but imports of uncertain reliability. The interdiction of the German-owned BBC China, a cargo ship on its way from Malaysia to Libya via Dubai and found to be carrying thousands of centrifuge parts obtained through the A.Q. Kahn network, changed thinking with the Libyan scientific community. Perhaps the nuclear program would demand too great a commitment and cost given other national needs.

Third, after the American attack on Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi in spite of his rhetorical bravado was said to have become concerned for his personal safety. Voice was given to worries that Libya could be vulnerable to the same fate as Iraq.

Fourth, special credit must be given to the quiet, professional and secret diplomacy of a small group of foreign affairs and intelligence officials in London, where the negotiations were located, Washington and Tripoli. Ostensibly and successfully dealing with compensation for the families of the Pan Am 103 victims, the Libyan's were put on notice that there would be no agreement and termination of the sanctions without the dismantling of their entire program of weapons of mass destruction. Wisely, the Anglo-Saxons told the leader of the Libyan delegation Musa Kusa, the foreign minister who recently defected, that the dismantlement would involve "verification" but not "inspections" the term used earlier by UNSCOM in Iraq. Libya was allowed to save face, especially important in the Arab world.

Within the Gaddafi regime there had been a gradual realization that nuclear weapons would not enhance Libya's power and prestige, nor be worth the economic costs. Not long after the December 2003 nuclear renunciation, the charismatic colonel went to Brussels, the first trip to Europe in fifteen years. "Libya, which has led the liberation movements of the Third World" he declared, has now decided to lead the peace movements. The first step taken out of my own volition is to discard all weapons of mass destruction".

Does he regret this today?

Andrew J. Pierre is at the U.S. Institute of Peace writing a book Getting to 'No': Why Nations Decide Not to Develop Nuclear Arms