Many of the key Bush administration officials—the same ones who helped normalize ties between the United States and Libya in the wake of the 2003 Iraq war—are glad to hear about Muammar Gaddafi’s death.
Ambassador Robert Joseph, the leader of the U.S. side of the secret negotiations in 2003 that led to Libya giving up its nuclear program, said he called Gaddafi’s demise “overdue.”
“It needed to occur, this is a man that has the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands and he has met justice. The fact that it came from his own people, I think is true justice,” he said.
“It was clear Libya under Gaddafi was ruled by a group of thugs,” Joseph added. “While they might look like choir-boys next to the North Koreans, these were individuals who put bombs on civilian airliners and were brutal to their own people. The regime was a thugocracy and Gaddafi was worst of the worst.”
The deal forged by Joseph to normalize ties with Libya was widely touted by then-President George W. Bush—and many of his critics—as one of the major foreign policy accomplishments of his administration. In secret talks after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, Musa Kusa, negotiated away Libya’s stock of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs to a U.S.-British team that included top officials from the Mi6 and CIA.
In essence, Gaddafi agreed to abandon his weapons in exchange for the U.S. to lift sanctions, restore diplomatic ties and allow investments into his country. And in 2009, Gaddafi paid $10 million each to the families of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 terrorist bombing that was tied to his intelligence service.
Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Libya deal was the best example of a kind of grand bargain of “our moral principles in exchange for your WMD.” While Pletka said it was better for the Libyan people and the world that Gaddafi did not have nukes, germs or chemicals when his people rose up, she questioned whether this kind of bargain would be offered in the future from countries like North Korea and Iran.
While the United States sometimes pressed Gaddafi to make political reforms and free dissidents like Fathi al-Jahmi, the dictator ignored those pleas. Al-Jahmi eventually died in 2009 after his ailing health declined in Libyan custody.
Steve Rademaker, an assistant secretary of state for arms control during the normalization period with Libya, said the team still “abided by our deal with Gaddafi.
“He abandoned his weapons of mass destruction programs and we normalized relations,” said Rademaker, who is the husband of Pletka.. “It was never part of the deal that we would continue to back him as he adopted increasingly repressive measures to control his own population.”
Paula DeSutter, a senior Bush administration official who played a key role in verifying the elimination of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, said it was problematic from a proliferation perspective that a dictator who came in from the cold would end up in a sewer—while hold-out proliferators remained in power.
“The lesson for WMD states is that giving up your WMD is not a good enough solution for good relations with the United States,” DeSutter said. “While it’s great that Gaddafi is dead and that Libya can start on a much more positive path, from a WMD perspective the contrast between how the United States has responded to Libya versus how we’ve responded to Syria and Iran is a contrast that is very disturbing.”
“If you are a bad leader, then the United States might whack you if you are weak, but if you are a terrible regime like what we have in Iran and Syria, but you have weapons and a willingness to use them, then you might be immune from any serious action from the United States and NATO,” DeSutter added.
But Joseph pushed back on that view. “There is no indication that the Iranian or North Korean regimes have any intention of giving up their weapons,” Joseph said. “Will they use Gaddafi’s experience as a convenient talking point? Absolutely. But it’s up to us to put in place effective policies and capabilities that will convince, and if necessary compel, these regimes to abandon their arsenals.”
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said in an interview that he also did not think a Libya-style deal could be reached with North Korea or Iran. Kirk said they would only surrender nuclear weapons if “new governments took power. Libya is a good example of how to scare medium size or small countries.”
Kirk and Joseph agree that Gaddafi made the decision to abandon his nuclear weapons only after he saw the United States lead a coalition against Saddam Hussein. But Kirk said there was no way Gaddafi could have stayed in power after making a grave miscalculation: “Gaddafi feared George W. Bush, but he should have feared his own people on Facebook even more.”
While Bush got credit from his political foes for restoring ties with Libya, it looks like Obama is getting some credit from his opposition for hastening the downfall of Gaddafi.
“This is a big win for the administration, for the US military, for NATO but especially to the people of Libya that hung on in Banghazi when no one else would back them,” Kirk said.