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Engagement Ring

The quiet coalition to rehabilitate Qaddafi.

Oilmen have feelings, too. Take the industry executive who lobbied the White House last year to lift the ban on U.S. corporations doing business in Libya. When National Security Council officials rejected his plea, he broke down and wept. The Libyans, he sniffled, were a gentle people. They deserved better. White House officials offered him a tissue.

That was then. If proponents of warmer relations with Libya are shedding tears today, they are tears of elation. Quietly, fitfully, but unmistakably, America's hard line toward Muammar Qaddafi is crumbling, replaced by a policy of incremental rewards and blandishments. The softening is part of a larger Clintonite charm offensive with respect to rogue states--but, unlike the recent overtures toward Iran and North Korea, the Libya shift is, for the most part, taking place behind closed doors; neither Bill Clinton nor Madeleine Albright has spoken of it in public. No one, after all, wants to incur the wrath of the families of the 189 American victims of Pan Am Flight 103.

But, whether the families know it or not, the influence they once had on U.S. policy is slipping away. Consider a few of the past year's developments. To persuade Qaddafi to hand over two suspects in the 1988 Pan Am bombing for trial, the United States approved a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which pledged that the trial would not be used to "undermine" the Libyan regime and quietly dropped the demand that it be held in either America or Great Britain. When Qaddafi complied last April, the United States promptly backed the de facto lifting of U.N. sanctions against Libya. A few months later, the administration granted waivers for four U.S. oil companies--Amerada Hess, Conoco, Marathon, and Occidental--to survey Libyan oil fields. It also permitted U.S. agribusiness executives to travel to Tripoli to negotiate contracts and authorized the sale of thousands of tons of wheat to Libya. Soon afterward, the State Department itself dispatched a team to assess whether the longstanding ban on travel to the former rogue state (recently reclassified as a "state of concern") should be abandoned. "Change can now be imagined," Ronald Neumann, the State Department's point man on Libya, advised in a little-noticed speech last year. "Libya is not Iraq. We do not seek to maintain sanctions until there is a change of regime in Tripoli."

Neumann's explanation is straightforward. "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." It is also unpersuasive. True, Qaddafi hasn't blown up an airplane lately. But, in his ongoing efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and his continued ties to an alphabet soup of terrorist organizations, Qaddafi remains very much the man President Reagan dubbed "the mad dog of the Middle East." As for his "support" for the Middle East peace process, its depth may be gleaned from, among other things, denunciations of Israel that would make even Saddam Hussein blush. And then, of course, there is the unresolved matter of the 189 Americans his minions murdered.

None of this, however, seems to have made the slightest impression on Washington's new Libya lobby--a chorus of thirsty oil executives, retired diplomats for hire, "can't we all just get along" Clintonites, and State Department Arabists, all of whom contend that Qaddafi has atoned amply for his past indiscretions. Their reasons for promoting rapprochement with Libya range from the sheer acquisitiveness of the oil industry to the administration's conviction that diplomatic carrots almost always achieve better results than wielding the big stick. And their efforts to rehabilitate Qaddafi are paying off.

The most cynical member of the coalition is the oil industry, which until recently had been sheepish about pressing for warmer relations with Qaddafi. But, emboldened by signs of diplomatic rapprochement, a parade of oil lobbyists has been bombarding the White House with requests to lift unilateral sanctions--offering to arrange audiences with Libyan officials for U.S. congressmen and even, in some instances, conducting their own foreign policy.
Thus far the effort has yielded only waivers to inspect oil fields, but industry spokesmen like Conoco CEO Archie Dunham predict that a "window of opportunity" will open next year. To exploit it, oil interests have pressed into service a collection of former high-ranking government officials with connections both at the State Department and in the Arab world. Perhaps the most prominent is Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state who now runs a consulting firm with clients hoping to do business in Africa. Cohen is sanguine about the prospects for closer relations with Tripoli. Asked whether the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 poses an insurmountable barrier, he replies, "There's insurmountable and there's insurmountable.... To hold out for a change of regime will put a halt to progress." Cohen's business partner, James Woods, who handled Libya policy at the Pentagon during the '80s, is more broad-minded still: "Shooting down Pan Am 103 was unacceptable. But so was shooting down the Iranian Airbus." The victims' families, he predicts, "will have to settle for what they settle for."

But if Cohen tells Americans uncomfortable truths, his message for Qaddafi is less confrontational. Cohen visited the dictator last year on behalf of then-client Kamel Ghribi, a Tunisian-born oil tycoon and associate of Qaddafi's. A memo written by another of Ghribi's U.S. consultants described the visit:

According to Mr. Ghribi the purpose of our visit was to be thanked by the Leader [Qaddafi] for our efforts made to break the Pan Am 103 deadlock. He credited us with helping to persuade Abdullah Senussi [a Qaddafi sidekick who has been convicted in absentia by a French court for blowing up a French passenger jet] and others that the delivery of the two accused was in the best interests of Libya.... Cohen opened the meeting by congratulating the Leader for his courage and wisdom shown by delivering the accused PA 103 bombers for trial. He encouraged the Leader to take full advantage of the dialogue with the United States through the channel recently opened at the U.N. by the U.S. government and the Secretary-General.

Qaddafi responded to this suggestion by launching into a rant against Israel's influence on U.S. policy, one with which, according to the memo, "neither Ambassador Cohen nor I attempted to argue."

Nor is Cohen the only former assistant secretary of state whom Ghribi has retained. Robert Pelletreau, who handled Near East affairs in the Bush and Clinton administrations, has also offered his legal services, along with advice on, for example, how Libya might improve its image during the Kosovo conflict. Pelletreau has advice for Americans, too. "[T]he loosening trend evident in U.S. policy during 1999," he observes in a monthly report for companies doing business in the Middle East, "indicates that alert energy companies can and should be preparing for the day when the door is again open for them to operate in [Libya, Iraq, and Iran]." Other Libya boosters put it even more bluntly. "We have oil interests and the potential to make more money," says Milton Viorst, an American journalist who has traveled to Libya to interview Qaddafi. "If we don't go in and make the money, the Germans and French will do it for us." As for the families of those killed above Lockerbie, Scotland, Viorst adds, "It won't serve our interests to have our Libya policy determined by a grudge. We cannot allow one organization to be the determinant of Libya policy."

In fact, the Pan Am 103 families aren't the only "organization" with an interest in Libya policy, as Viorst well knows. He, along with Cohen and a gallery of former U.S. officials and academics sympathetic to Qaddafi, has participated in the newly formed U.S.-Libya Dialogue Group. The group, which has met with current and former Libyan officials, aims to inform Americans about the "New Libya" and recommends "getting past the Lockerbie issue," according to one of its members. Though ostensibly sponsored by a Dutch university, U.S. officials and even some participants suspect the organization acts at the behest of the Libyan government. "The group's travel expenses--their airfare, hotels, everything--are bought and paid for by Qaddafi," says Ray Takeyh, a Libya expert who received an invitation to join the organization. Indeed, the U.S. government prohibited Americans from attending the group's most recent conference in--where else?--Libya.

But, for all its efforts, the oil industry has been less the engine of Libya policy than its beneficiary: the White House and the State Department are already one step ahead. The Clinton administration's inclination that trade and investment generally suffice to bring adversaries to their senses was reinforced, in the case of Libya, by pressure from U.S. allies. In spring 1998, British Prime Minister Tony Blair complained to Clinton in a telephone conversation that international support for sanctions against Iraq was eroding and counseled that, to hold the line against Saddam, the United States should ease another of its embargoes. A senior State Department official recalls that complaints from abroad (as well as from the president himself) that the United States had become "sanctions happy" created an environment in which something had to give. And, at the suggestion of the British--who were then in the midst of normalizing their own relations with Qaddafi--that something became U.S. policy toward Libya.

The rapprochement might have remained embryonic had it not been for the efforts of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ronald Neumann. A former ambassador to Algeria and a principled advocate for better relations with the Arab world whose stand on Libya enjoys Albright's backing, Neumann makes no secret of his preferences. "Libya no longer poses the threat it once did," he explains, arguing that the best way to bolster the country's bid for redemption is through engagement. In theory, Neumann's enthusiasms should have been tempered by skepticism from the department's counterterrorism desk--after all, Qaddafi's lieutenants downed an American passenger plane. But the State Department's counterterrorism shop has long been a dumping ground for exhausted foreign service officers, and Christopher Ross, the office's director when Neumann began steering Libya policy--and, like Neumann, a former ambassador to Algeria (and Syria)--neatly fit the stereotype. (Ross left the government in late 1998, after his nomination to be ambassador for counterterrorism was pulled.) "Without Ross, Neumann would never have been able to push through his Libya agenda," says a White House official. And though Ross's successor, a former Special Forces officer named Michael Sheehan, is no proponent of closer relations with Qaddafi--his screaming matches with Neumann over Libya policy have become the stuff of legend at the State Department and the National Security Council--by the time he arrived on the scene, Libya had become the exclusive property of the Near East bureau.

Still, the State Department does not make U.S. foreign policy alone. At least, it is not supposed to. But the views of NSC officials didn't much matter, because the State Department kept them almost entirely out of the loop. As one NSC staffer put it, "We couldn't have disagreed with State more on Libya, but they never shared anything with us and, in the end, rolled right over us." In one case, NSC staffers assured families of the Lockerbie victims--and apparently believed themselves--that U.N. sanctions against Libya would merely be suspended, only to discover at the last moment that they would be effectively lifted instead.

But, if NSC staffers were misled by the State Department, some of them passed the duplicity on to the families of the Pan Am 103 victims. Steven Simon, then the NSC's senior director for counterterrorism, read the families portions of the U.N. letter assuring Qaddafi that the bombing trial would not be used to undermine his regime. When Qaddafi subsequently gloated that Libya's role in the bombing would not be examined at all, irate family members demanded a copy of the letter. The NSC, however, now claimed there was no longer any record of such a correspondence. Then it did exist but couldn't be found. Then it was located but, well, had been classified. Today, NSC officials, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger himself, say they would like nothing more than to release the note to the families. But, regrettably, it's not theirs to release. The letter, you see, is a U.N. document.

At their most forthright, advocates of the Clinton administration's Qaddafi-friendly maneuvering defend the policy as an expression of hardheaded raison d'état. As Simon argues, "America has permanent interests, not permanent enemies." But surely America's overriding interest is the safety of its citizens. And, for regimes that monstrously violate that interest--say, by blowing up a U.S. airliner--permanent animosity is the only suitable response. The Libya engagers claim that competing interests--oil, geopolitics, international goodwill--matter more. But, then, those weren't their relatives blown out of the sky.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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