Author of the following essay, is president of the Qadhafi Foundation, which is dedicated to resolving international conflicts. He is the son of the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qadhafi.
The United States has become very good at breaking off diplomatic relations with small countries of which we disapprove; it has not been very good at restoring these relations when circumstances have changed. As a result, we have cut ourselves off in permanent fashion from major areas that offer the potential of productive diplomatic exchange. We also deny ourselves vital information and insight into the thinking of states which, whether or not we like it, are important to our interests. We have taken the position that diplomatic relations with the United States are a reward, when in fact they are an instrument of policymaking that we forgo at considerable cost.
Saif Aleslam al-Qadhafi herein presents a program that could serve as the foundation for America’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Libya. His voice is authoritative. He has been educated for high public responsibilities: a bachelor’s degree in architecture and town planning in Libya and a master’s degree in business administration in Vienna; he is currently working on his doctorate at the London School of Economics. The diplomatic community, especially in Europe and the Arab world, has not failed to notice that, even as a student, he has been entrusted by his father with a series of important international negotiations. Though only 30, his reputation as a serious, thoughtful representative of his country has been established.
Saif Aleslam al-Qadhafi’s presentation is candid. Some may even find it harsh. He makes clear that America’s perception of the events that have long divided our two countries is far different from Libya’s. His words reveal that long, hard bargaining may be in store for both governments if their differences are to be resolved. But, most important, he conveys the recognition that Libya has entered a new era in its history, in which it envisages full and responsible membership in the community of nations. This presentation deserves the full attention of the American policymaking establishment.
– Milton Viorst, author of many books and articles on Libya and the Middle East conflict, most recently, What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism
Libyan-American relations appear finally to be on a positive course. On the evening of last September 11, the leader of the Libyans, Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, said in a speech, “Irrespective of the conflict with America, it is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them in these horrifying and awesome events which are bound to awaken human conscience.” His statement was a heartfelt expression of sorrow, signaling that our two countries had reached a common recognition of the need to eliminate the dangers of international extremism and terrorism.
While America’s relations with most Arab nations teeter between tense and cautiously cooperative, Libya and the United States are coming closer together. Libya has moved steadily in recent years to eliminate the antagonism that has long divided us.
Being Arab, Libya has been far more adept than the West at infiltrating the fanatical groups that have been behind so much recent violence. The activities in our own country of cells linked organizationally and ideologically to extremism give us a shared interest with the West in stopping them.
Even before the September 11 attacks, Libya forwarded to Western agencies a series of messages through the Internet which revealed extremist threats to both our country and theirs. Soon after September 11, Libya’s director of external intelligence, Musa Kusa, met with senior U.S. officials in London to plan a program of mutual assistance in the war on terrorism. Libya has since pointed out to the Americans that Ibn el-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan national, was operating a guest house for extremists in Afghanistan, a disclosure which led to the arrest one of the chief figures on the U.S. wanted list. It also disclosed the extremists’ reliance on Britain as a major base, transmitted data on the European banks that made up their financing structure, and described how they used Internet messaging to move information and money without detection. In recognition of a capacity for mutual assistance, the two countries have reached an accord on a secure intelligence channel.
It should be noted that Libya has never been sympathetic to Islamic radicalism. Though deeply Islamic, its religious practices do not resemble those of so-called fundamentalist societies. Libya’s rejection of the concept of a theocratic state made the leader himself the target of an attack in Sebha, a city in south Libya, by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, linked to al-Qaeda. Libya has issued an arrest warrant for Osama bin Laden. Even as it clashed with America on political matters, Libya has been guided on the religious level, like America, by a moderate, non-coercive, inclusive faith in God. Libya does not seek to trivialize its longstanding disagreements with America. They have been significant and real.
Libyan school children learn that our first encounter came in 1800, when American warships entered our harbors to bombard Tripoli and Derna. Over decades of colonialism, our relations with America were distant, at best. In our own time, trouble began soon after the Libyan revolution of 1969, when the new government under the direction of Colonel Qadhafi, seeking to assert national independence, expelled American military bases from our territory.
We were a more radical country then. Colonialism had forced us to adopt radical policies even after we were nominally free. Like America two centuries ago, we did not want outsiders looming over us. We wanted full control over our land and our national affairs, while the powers that had ruled over us remained unwilling to sever the ties of our dependency. Our leadership also felt a duty to inspire peoples still under foreign rule, to challenge the powers that represented the old colonialism or practiced an updated neocolonialism.
Like all Arab countries, we took the position that Israel was in the colonialist tradition, and we strongly opposed its domination over our Palestinian brethren. We do not apologize for doing all we could to help them. We opposed Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, which left the Palestinians in captivity, and we led a campaign in the Arab League to isolate Egypt for abandoning the Arab cause.
Our concerns, moreover, were not limited to Arabs. We gave support to liberation movements that spanned the globe from Nicaragua to New Caledonia. We openly offered training camps for freedom fighters, and we helped them financially. Some of them – former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Yosseri Musevini of Uganda, for example – have since become respected world leaders, even friends of the United States. Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority won the Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout this period, Colonel Qadhafi never concealed his conceptual disagreements with the West. Understandably, his actions, as well as his fiery speeches in behalf of the freedom struggle, alienated Washington’s policy makers.
This was also the era of the Cold War.
America’s focus, in contrast to our own, was on its rivalry with the Soviet Union. Libyans certainly were not Communists; notwithstanding American accusations, we never had a common agenda with Moscow. Still, Moscow accepted us as we were, willingly sold us arms and provided us with diplomatic support. Though our objectives diverged, Libya often followed policies parallel to Moscow’s. Washington, however, was mistaken in perceiving the occasions we and the Russians worked in tandem with a de facto political alliance.
As an example, Libya was instrumental in raising the worldwide price of oil from its 1970 base of $3 a barrel, a price we regarded as economic exploitation. We did this by nationalizing our oil industry, helping to break the monopoly of the oil companies over worldwide pricing. We also supported the oil embargo at the time of the Arabs’ 1973 war with Israel, which sent prices soaring.
The policy that we saw as anticolonialism the industrial countries considered a deliberate attack. Moscow benefited by an increase in its own oil income and enjoyed the discomfort the policy caused to the West, but that was not our purpose. Our policy did not save the Soviet Union from ultimate collapse. It did, however, spur economic growth in Libya and the rest of the Arab world. At the same time, the policy aggravated Washington’s anti-Libyan hostility.
When Ronald Reagan was elected America’s president in 1981, a confrontation between our countries became only a matter of time. Reagan took the initiative by challenging the legal status of the Gulf of Sirte, abutting our coast, which Libya regarded as its territorial waters. Reagan treated it as international, freely available to America’s Sixth Fleet, which was on permanent duty in the Mediterranean.
Libya, of course, considered the Sixth Fleet an arm of Western colonialism. The dispute was essentially a legal one and might well have been settled by diplomacy or international courts. But Reagan chose to resolve it with America’s military power, which was vastly superior to our own. He quickly found a pretext for a showdown. Having already closed Libya’s embassy in Washington, Reagan provoked a military conflict in August, 1981. U.S. Navy jets attached to the Sixth Fleet attacked and shot down two Libyan planes near our coast. The following year, Washington imposed an embargo on Libyan oil and prohibited sales of commercial airliners, calling without success for similar action by its European allies. At the same time, it leaked stories to the press that the Qadhafi regime would be overthrown and the leader assassinated.
Libya’s response was to give no political ground. The American attacks reached a climax on April 15, 1986, in direct response to the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin in which two Americans and a Turkish woman were killed. Citing links to Libya, Reagan sent some 150 planes to bomb the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. Though targeted with care, the raid was not limited to military objectives; it killed 41 Libyans and injured another 220.
Among the targets was the Bab Al-Aziziya military barracks in Tripoli, where my family was living. I was just a schoolboy then, but I well recall the thundering noise of the explosions. My two younger brothers, Al-Mutasem Billah, 11, and Hanibal, 10, came close to death when their bedroom collapsed around them. The chief mission of the raid, however, was to get to my father, whom Reagan had obviously decided to liquidate.
We learned later how much effort American intelligence had exerted to locate and kill my father, going far beyond the usual satellite reconnaissance. A Western journalist had been recruited to conduct interviews that would pinpoint his position. The leader of a friendly Arab state placed phone calls which were electronically monitored. But Qadhafi survived, to remain a thorn in America’s side.
Then, on December 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people. President Reagan, whose term was to expire in a month, threatened to bomb Libya to rubble if conclusive evidence of its culpability were found. Ten days later, without such evidence, the United States shot down two more Libyan planes over the Gulf of Sirte. This time Libya, to avoid offering a further pretext for military action, chose not to answer the attack.
Since then, however, the Lockerbie incident has been the central issue in Libyan-American relations.
Libya has never accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, and, in the early days, talk in the international press and in legal circles focused on a variety of other suspects.
One of them was Iran, which the previous July had lost 290 passengers in the downing of a commercial airliner by a missile from an American warship in the Persian Gulf. Syrians and Palestinians were also mentioned as potentially culpable. Western authorities were obviously baffled. In interviews, Libya’s leader did not rule out the possibility that Libyan nationals might have been implicated, but he has consistently disavowed any involvement whatever of the government.
Reagan, having failed in his effort to bring down Libya’s government, turned over the presidency to his successor, the first President George Bush, whose term began a month after Lockerbie. Libya hoped for a more prudent policy 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.
Libya did not join the Western coalition against Iraq, as many Arab states did, and it was not involved in the subsequent Madrid Conference, in which the United States sought to promote an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Though he thought the Madrid conference futile, the Libyan leader by this time had acknowledged the importance of a peace agreement. But he retained his long-held position that the parties were proceeding in the wrong fashion.
The leader does not dismiss Washington’s concern for Israel’s security. He understands the two are allies. But he cannot imagine a peace that does not take into account legitimate Palestinian aspirations, and he is deeply concerned about the fate of the Palestinian refugees. He is convinced, moreover, that it is unwise to divide Palestine into two states, one of them subdivided into two segments, the West Bank and Gaza, both dominated by Israeli settlements. He believes that such an arrangement, requiring a permanent link across unfriendly territory, must inevitably be the source of ongoing violence.
Instead, the leader has proposed the establishment of a single secular state, federal and democratic in structure, with equal rights for all, permitting both peoples to shape a culture of their own. He proposes that it be without weapons of mass destruction, open to the return of both Palestinians and Jews, and belong, among other security organizations, to the Arab League. Such a state, he knows, would not fully meet the maximalist dreams of either people, but he believes it would be superior to the fractured sovereignty that has been on the international agenda since well before Madrid.
A few weeks after the Madrid conference, Washington turned back to Lockerbie. Libya believes the timing was not coincidental. Together, Washington and London announced that there was evidence that two Libyan nationals – Lamin Khalifa Fihmah and Abdul Basset Ali al-Megrahi – were directly to blame for the bombing. Without producing a shred of proof, it also condemned the Libyan government for the suspects’ alleged acts.
Washington demanded that Libya surrender the suspects for trial in the United States or Britain. It also called on Libya to accept responsibility for the bombing, pay compensation to the families of the victims and renounce further terrorism. Though Libya offered to try the men at home, Washington persuaded the United Nations to impose an embargo based on its demands. Only the second in U.N. history, the embargo was to remain in force until Libya met the American terms. To Libya, the action was perceived as prior condemnation.
Recognizing the magnitude of the force confronting it, Libya, to America’s surprise, acceded at that point to the principle of an international trial. But it resolved not to submit to the conditions that Washington sought to impose. Announcing a willingness to bargain on terms, the leader mobilized Libya’s population to rise above the embargo, while reorganizing the economy to keep the country functioning. The government repatriated much of Libya’s offshore funds, which became out of reach when the United Nations tried to freeze them. The lesson Libya conveyed was that its state could not be overturned nor its social order disrupted.
Libya’s objective was not delay, as such, but avoidance of the kind of kangaroo court that the leader feared would characterize any proceedings which Washington dominated. The British were receptive to this logic, and to help win them over the leader provided them with data about the activities of the Irish Republican Army and with sales concessions in our domestic market. To the French we offered special access to our oil fields. We saw these gestures as a “golden bridge” to facilitate support of our compromise offer of a trial conducted in a third country.
At the same time, Libya worked to shift international public opinion. Third World leaders, increasingly resentful of America’s strong-arm methods, mobilized behind it. Supportive resolutions challenging the U.N. positions were passed by the Organization of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Arab League. Washington had to understand these actions as expressions of resentment of America’s excesses. A favorable ruling by the International Court of Justice on a Libyan suit against the Western powers over jurisdiction was also helpful.
The changed climate had largely isolated the United States. The tipping point came with the intercession of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington, who joined with South Africa’s President Mandela as well as Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair to work out terms to close the gap. By then it was clear that, if Washington wanted to try the two Libyan suspects, it would have to accept Libya’s conditions on the location and organization of the trial.
Libya, however, was not totally satisfied with the ensuing arrangements. Washington insisted that the U.N. sanctions be lifted only on a provisional basis. It also left intact the diverse sanctions imposed in the 1980s by President Reagan, holding that it would reconsider them only after the trial. Qadhafi protested that the temporary and partial nature of the relief violated the intent of the United Nations.
Though he saw the agreement as representing progress, it was a small step indeed toward ending the mutual antagonism between the two countries.
Britain, in contrast, agreed, once the terms of the trial were set, to the restoration of normal relations. So did France, with which Libya cooperated fully in the investigation and later in the trial in Paris of suspects in the bombing of a French airliner, which took place in the same year as the Lockerbie episode. Both now have embassies in the Libyan capital.
The arrangement that all accepted provided for a trial to be conducted by Scottish judges, under Scottish law, on a former airbase in the Netherlands. The plan was drawn up by Scottish legal experts, and formal instructions were issued by Queen Elizabeth. The suspects, delivered to the Hague, were locked up in a prison that surprised us by its level of comfort. But the trial that followed was surely one of the strangest in British history.
Libya cooperated in the Scottish investigation, as it had promised in the agreement. It invited the Scottish prosecutor’s office to send a legal team to Tripoli, which made two visits. The team interrogated 13 Libyans in October 1999, and 59 in June 2000. It was also given whatever documents it requested. The Scots acknowledged they received full cooperation from the Libyan authorities.
Notwithstanding the Libyan research, however, the prosecution’s case was based chiefly on the evidence on which the American authorities had brought their indictment in 1993. We Libyans acknowledged that the proceedings were conducted scrupulously by the Scottish judges. We had more reservations about the defense lawyers, both Libyan and Scottish, who had been chosen by the suspects but whose effectiveness was questionable.
These considerations, however, were secondary to the verdict, which, according to a consensus of experts and observers, corresponded poorly with the facts that the prosecutors presented. The verdict, to say the least, was puzzling.
The evidence, according to this consensus, did not lay to rest the possibility that the plane was destroyed by a totally different scenario, directed by other culprits. Indeed, at the end, the 1988 hypotheses seemed as plausible as any claims of Libyan involvement.
To obtain a conviction, the prosecution had to prove that the two suspects acted in concert to blow up the Pan Am plane. It also had to prove that Megrahi placed the bomb in a piece of luggage that was loaded at Malta.
Professor Robert Black, the Scottish legal expert who was chief architect of the trial format, described the prosecution’s case as “a weak circumstantial one.” The judges themselves went further, conceding their own doubts. “We are aware,” their decision stated, of the “danger that by selecting parts of the evidence which seem to fit together and ignoring parts which might not fit, it is possible to read into a mass of conflicting evidence a pattern or conclusion which is not really justified.”
Fihmah, one of the accused, was found innocent of the charges, while Megrahi was ruled guilty, leaving unanswered major questions about the conspiracy. But one conclusion was indisputable: no evidence was presented that implicated the Libyan government.
Many Western specialists were surprised that the verdict was not overturned on appeal. The spokesman for the British crash victims – but not the American victims – rejected the culpability of both of the accused. Like all Libyans, so did the leader. Though further appeals remain under British law, Libya had pledged under the original agreement to accept the verdict, and it will honor the pledge.
In keeping with this commitment, Libya’s government has taken the initiative to create a “peace fund,” to which Libya will contribute $2.7 billion in order to close the Lockerbie file and relegate the Libyan-American dispute to history. Libya argues that victims’ compensation be based on the precedent of America’s payment to the survivors of the Iranian airliner downed in 1988 and the cable car that fell in the Italian Alps in 1999, when an American warplane severed its cable. Both events are regarded as accidents. Libya rejects compensation based on intentional destruction, insisting the circumstances surrounding the Lockerbie crash are too uncertain to justify punitive damages.
But Libya’s “peace fund” goes further. It includes provision for compensating the families of the Libyan victims of the American raids in 1986 on Tripoli and Benghazi. Libya has not forgotten these deaths or the conviction that the parties responsible should be put on trial. To end the chain reaction of attacks, it is also considering payment for the victims in the bombing of the Berlin discotheque that preceded the Tripoli-Benghazi raids.
We Libyans recognize Lockerbie as a terrible tragedy, which we deeply regret. Libya sees the tragedy, however, not in isolation but within the context of international conflict, for which overall blame is widely shared. For this reason, Libya considers it proper for a range of governments, as well as international businesses, to contribute to the fund. In fact, several large companies, a number of them American, have made generous offers already. We also consider it vital for America, at this point, to release for deposit to the fund Libyan money frozen during the Reagan era. Again, our vision is to build a “golden bridge” between the parties to the dispute by taking the lead in creating the fund and making the principal gift.
But I repeat the condition that our contribution must be the end of the road in this long and painful affair. The survivors must agree to a formula for the allocation, and, once the money is disbursed, the file must be closed. Libya feels it was targeted for extortion when some of the victims’ families in the French crash filed suits after a majority agreed to a settlement. It is not unreasonable to hold that Libya wants no repetition of such suits in a Lockerbie settlement.
Even more important, Libya insists on Washington’s stating explicitly that, following the settlement, it will permanently lift the barriers to Libya’s normal relations with the outside world. This applies particularly to the United States itself.
Libya must no longer be subject to an embargo, as it has been since the Reagan years. Its name must be removed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Its citizens must no longer be singled out for discrimination in obtaining American visas.
Though Lockerbie hangs over both our countries like a dark cloud, the United States has told us it is amenable to restoring normal relations. It says it has no hidden agenda, that it is ready to open the door to dialogue. The last barrier between us is the compensation question, and the framework of a resolution is clear. We recognize that America is faced with domestic political pressures, but so is Libya. We are ready to get on with more vital concerns, so long as Washington is willing to join us. Unfortunately, Libya’s dealing with the United States over many years has left us mistrustful of vague promises. We cannot fulfill the conditions of reconciliation without a certainty that Washington will do the same.
The American government, I should note, admits openly that Libya has in no way been implicated, since at least 1990, in acts it calls “terrorism.” Having long ago stopped training revolutionaries, we are now linked by common interest to the foes of global violence. Our shoreline, which America challenged during the Cold War, has become center court in a worldwide antiterrorist contest. We have announced full compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions 731, 748 and 883, which commit us to desist from any future terrorism. In the new millennium, the old disputes have given way to a shared Libyan-American strategy against an international enemy.
Indeed, times have changed. Not only is there no more Cold War; the old liberation movements have faded. The Palestinians have a legal and recognized authority to represent them. Moreover, in an age of globalization, Libya recognizes the advantages enjoyed by large states, as well as regional trading blocs, and it has taken a stand – in Chechnya, Chad and the Philippines, for example – against secessionist strategies, even if they are Islamic. Libya now urges liberation movements to turn to diplomacy and democracy to satisfy their objectives.
Let me cite one further shadow on the horizon. The U.N. resolution that serves as the basis of the sanctions against Libya requires renunciation of any future terrorism. As I have made clear, Libya fully complies with that demand. Recently, however, the United States has raised the bar to give the condition a spin it did not have when the resolution was passed. It now holds that the resolution covers weapons of mass destruction as well.
The substance of this redefinition presents no obstacle. Whatever some Americans may say, Libya has no weapons of mass destruction, neither nuclear nor chemical nor biological. Its workshops maintain its Scud missiles at the 300 kilometer limit, the distance formally recognized as defensive, and Washington itself has said that even if Libya wanted to extend their range, it lacks the industrial and technical capacity to do so. This means that Libya possesses neither weapons of mass destruction nor the means to deliver them. Libya has signed the nuclear non-proliferation and test-ban treaties, as well as the agreement barring biological weapons. Currently, it is in the process of ratifying a similar treaty banning chemical weapons.
Not only does Libya have no plans to obtain such weapons, it has invited offers from American and European pharmaceutical companies to take over the full operation of Rabta, the one factory in which its critics say manufacture of such weapons is possible. It welcomes, as well, inspection of the Terhuna tunnel, an aqueduct in which U.S. intelligence falsely claims that weapons are made.
Under the non-proliferation treaty, Libya already receives regular U.N inspections of its nuclear facilities. It is ready to go further and welcome U.N. inspectors to verify observance of the chemical and biological weapons treaties. What troubles Libya is that, in contrast to its own policy on weapons of mass destruction, America’s tolerance of such weapons elsewhere, for reasons that look much like hypocrisy, falls seriously short of the stated level of its concern. It has not, moreover, made full disclosure of its own huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
But as an Arab country, Libya is particularly disturbed by American indifference to Israel’s nuclear capability. President Bush recently enunciated a doctrine justifying attack on any country producing weapons of mass destruction; it clearly exempts Israel. Even if Israel does not explicitly threaten to use them, these weapons loom over Arab-Israeli relations. By making no effort to curb Israel, Washington offers incentives for more states to enter the nuclear arms race, promoting political instability in our region.
Libya’s leader sees an encouraging precedent in South Africa, which in 1991 signed the non-proliferation treaty, dismantled its weapons and opened the way for U.N. inspections of its nuclear installations. Its decision facilitated peacemaking both at home and with neighbors. Libya urges Washington to persuade Israel to adopt such a policy, thereby reducing regional incentives to produce nuclear weapons and the ongoing menace of nuclear conflict.
Libya raises these issues with the United States in a spirit of genuine good will, recognizing that our relations currently stand on the threshold of great promise.
Libya does not envisage limiting relations to fighting terrorism. It proposes joint efforts, for example, to meet the needs of Africa by eradicating disease and promoting investment, and it has already contracted for a study by leading specialists with an eye to optimizing the use of resources. It looks forward to importing civilian technology from the world’s most technologically advanced society, while sending its students to learn in America’s excellent universities. In addition, it proposes to open its borders to American students, scholars and journalists, and to grant access to American companies to our growing economy.
At this crossroads of history, Libya recognizes America’s special role as a superpower. Even in the grimmest moments between us, in fact, Libya never threatened America’s vital interests. Libya is now ready to transform decades of mutual antagonism into an era of genuine friendship. This is not to say that Libya regrets the policies it long followed to preserve its independence. Libyans as a people are accustomed to making sacrifices for their freedom. They struggled for 300 years against the Turks and for 30 years against the Italians. Since their revolution 33 years ago, they have stood together against Western efforts to curb their sovereignty. Now they think it is time to bring international disputes to an end.
Libya’s critics make a mistake in suggesting that its overture to the United States is the product of political weakness. On the contrary, Libya, feeling secure about its achievements, holds out its hand from political strength. Libya would rather deal with America as its elder brother than (to use Ayatollah Khomeini’s term) the Great Satan, which is how so many Arabs perceive it. Libya is poised to enter a new stage in its national life, and it invites the United States to join it.