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June 2, 2022
News Analysis: Libya's Disarmament: A Model for U.S. Policy?
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Paul Kerr

Ask Bush administration officials what they want countries developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to do and you hear, “Act like Libya.”

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi surprised the world last December by announcing that Tripoli would give up its nuclear and chemical weapons programs, as well as restrict its missile arsenal to international standards. (See ACT, January/February 2004.) Since then, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that they want countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria to emulate Libya’s behavior. This is understandable: Gary Samore, a former Clinton administration National Security Council (NSC) aide, described Libya’s decision as “the best nonproliferation deal ever made.”

Appreciation for Libya’s action has increased as Tripoli has followed through on its pledges and given U.S. and British inspectors unprecedented access to verify that it has done so. Moreover, since December, Libya has also ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to more stringent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Libya’s turnaround has already ended its diplomatic isolation, eased U.S. sanctions, and opened the way for its reentry into the global economy.

Obviously, it would be ideal for other countries developing WMD to follow Libya’s example. But the factors that motivated Libya to give up its weapons, particularly the coercive elements of U.S. policy, do not easily translate into a broader nonproliferation policy.

A History of Sanctions and Diplomacy

Exactly what drove Gaddafi to renounce terrorism and his weapons programs is a subject of contention. Both sides in this debate agree that Libya’s desire to end UN sanctions and restore profitable economic relations with the United States was an important factor in Tripoli’s decision. But some former U.S. officials emphasize the importance of U.S. diplomatic efforts, as well as the sanctions’ impact. Current members of the Bush administration, by contrast, argue that Gaddafi was swayed as much, if not more, by the threat of U.S. force prior to the Iraq war and the interdiction of nuclear technology through a U.S.-led initiative.

The United States first imposed sanctions on Libya in 1973 and placed it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1979. Further terrorism sanctions were added in the 1980s. The 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, first passed by Congress in 1996, was the first major U.S. policy statement to address WMD concerns explicitly. That legislation—renewed five years later—allowed Washington to sanction foreign companies for certain investments in Libya’s oil and gas industries, as well as for providing goods or services contributing to Tripoli’s ability to acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

The UN Security Council followed suit in 1992 after the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight en route from London to New York and a French flight over Niger in 1989. The Security Council suspended its sanctions in 1999 after Libya handed over two officials for trial in the first bombing and following France’s acknowledgement that Tripoli cooperated with French officials investigating the latter. The Security Council permanently lifted its sanctions in September 2003 after Tripoli agreed to compensate the Pan Am bombing victims’ families. (See ACT, October 2003.)

Libya then moved to address long-standing U.S. concerns that it was developing unconventional weapons. In March 2003 (prior to the Iraq war), Libya approached the British government, which had restored diplomatic relations in 1999, to discuss how it could resolve this issue.

Diplomatic forays designed to bring an end to Libya’s terrorism and weapons activities, however, started years earlier. Martin Indyk, former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East region during the Clinton administration, wrote in a March 2004 Financial Times article that the United States began secret talks with Libya in 1999 to persuade the government to resolve issues concerning its terrorist activities.

During those talks, Indyk said, Libya offered to end its chemical weapons program and open its facilities to international inspection, but the United States placed a higher priority on terrorism.

Indyk added that the Clinton administration made clear to Libya that resolution of the issues regarding the Pan Am flight would be sufficient for Washington to refrain from using its veto to block a Security Council vote to lift UN sanctions. However, he said U.S. officials informed Tripoli that Washington would not remove its own sanctions until Libya addressed its concerns about WMD.

Former Bush NSC official Flynt Leverett added to this narrative in a January 2004 New York Times op-ed. Leverett wrote that the Bush administration continued the Clinton policy regarding UN sanctions. In addition, the United States in March 2003 offered Libya an “explicit quid pro quo,” in which the United States would lift its sanctions in exchange for Libya’s “verifiable dismantling” of its weapons programs.[1]

Former Clinton NSC official Daniel Benjamin added in an interview that the Bush administration seems to have offered an additional concession to Libya in the area of terrorism. The Clinton administration, he said, had demanded that Tripoli cooperate with a further investigation of the Pan Am bombing “no matter where it led.” According to Benjamin, such an investigation would almost certainly have led beyond the two Libyan officials “to the highest levels of the Libyan government,” something Tripoli obviously did not want.

Current administration officials interviewed for this article did not dismiss the role of diplomacy but placed special emphasis on two events that have, in the words of a senior administration official, “projected a message that we mean what we say” when it comes to stopping proliferation. The first was the massive U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf region prior to the Iraq war. Both the senior official and a Department of State official said that it was no accident that Tripoli approached London just when a U.S.-led coalition, citing WMD concerns, was about to invade Iraq.

Also crucial, they said, was an October 2003 U.S. interdiction of a German ship containing components for gas centrifuges, intended for use in Libya’s uranium-enrichment program.[2]

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton told the House International Relations Committee in March 2004 that Libya agreed to admit U.S. and British inspectors only after the October interdiction. The senior official added that Libya did not admit to having a nuclear weapons program until after the interdiction occurred, saying the discussions until that point were not “substantive.”

A Success Story, Not a Model

As a State Department official argued, one of the most important lessons from the Libya case is the importance of “shaping proliferators’ cost-benefit calculations”—with an emphasis on costs—to persuade them that possessing weapons of mass destruction is not in their self-interest. The senior official argued that Libya’s experience can demonstrate to countries such as Iran and North Korea the benefits of giving up their WMD programs.

The Bush administration has skillfully built on diplomacy inherited from its predecessors, which had produced a multilateral forum the United States could use to present a set of carrots and sticks to persuade Libya to give up its weapons. It is likely, however, that the United States will be dealing with countries such as Iran and North Korea under much different circumstances, which will significantly constrain coercive U.S. policy options.

Interdictions and Intelligence

Although the administration points to the October interdiction as decisive, Samore argued that the United States had intelligence about Libya’s programs that cannot be duplicated in the case of North Korea. Interdictions of illicit cargo are obviously valuable but require a degree of luck and international cooperation that limit their broad utility as a policy tool.
For example, the administration has touted its Proliferation Security Initiative—an effort to increase interdictions of WMD-related goods—as a way to contain North Korea’s shipments of missile components. However, this will not be easy; North Korea is a notoriously difficult intelligence target, and none of its three neighbors have agreed to join the effort.


By the time the Bush administration came into office, Libya had already been subject to several years of UN sanctions because of its terrorist activities. It also had begun to respond with positive overtures to the international community.[3] The international community also possessed substantial incentives and points of leverage, including two terrorism suspects under indictment.

It is unlikely that these conditions will exist with either North Korea or Iran. Pyongyang’s isolation and lack of significant economic interaction with the United States limit the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions. The demonstrated lack of willingness by North Korea’s neighbors, particularly China, to contain Pyongyang or support multilateral sanctions, presents another obstacle.

The situation with Iran is different and perhaps more difficult. Extensive international investment in and commerce with Iran would make persuading Western countries to impose sanctions on Iran difficult. Moreover, Iran’s close ties with Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, further diminish the prospect that the United Nations would take action. To be sure, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have conditioned an important trade agreement on Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA’s investigation into its nuclear program, but this demonstrates a commitment to a different set of carrots and sticks, rather than multilateral sanctions.[4]

Military Force

The invasion of Iraq does not appear to have been the decisive factor in Libya’s decision. But even if it was, this is at best a fortunate byproduct of the war that does not provide a useful guide for future nonproliferation policy—the United States obviously cannot invade one country to scare another into disarming.

Additionally, Iran and North Korea present even less appealing military targets than Iraq. Further, current U.S. military woes in Iraq make it all but impossible to believe that Washington will soon be able to invade any other countries on WMD grounds or win international support for doing so.


Apart from noting that policymakers should take advantage of opportunities to get others to disarm, are there any lessons from the Libya experience that can be used to confront other proliferation threats? Creating the conditions to be able to positively influence a country’s proliferation behavior is important, but it takes time and patience and the use of many different tools. There are, therefore, two main lessons we can draw from the Libya case.

First, use all available assets. A combination of sanctions, diplomacy, intelligence, and fortune helped to change Libya’s behavior. Obviously, these assets will exist in different combinations in other situations, but the United States should take advantage of all of them when it can.

A good example is the use of international weapons inspectors. Organizations such as the IAEA possess expertise and credibility that will be important for persuading other countries to stand with the United States against proliferation threats. These organizations, however, lack the military and intelligence capabilities that national governments possess. It is therefore important for national governments and international organizations to pool their respective capabilities to contain and prevent proliferation threats.

Second, smart diplomacy can work. This means setting clear rewards for good behavior and sanctions for bad behavior. In Libya’s case, the Security Council suspended sanctions for fulfilling some of its obligations and lifted them when it fulfilled the rest. The United States also used the leverage of its sanctions to persuade Libya to comply.

The lesson is that the current diplomatic efforts to solve the Iran and North Korea proliferation problems have promise. But the Bush administration to date has placed much greater emphasis on increasing the costs of retaining such programs than articulating the benefits of abandoning them. Because Washington’s ability to impose costs on both of these countries is limited, the administration needs to do more to make it clear to both of those countries that they can reap rewards from forswearing their weapons programs. So far, the administration has having only hinted at the benefits of cooperation.

The administration has done well in this case, but it will not be sufficient simply to tell other countries of proliferation concern to act like Libya. Instead, the United States must evaluate the factors that produced success in this case, especially the use of diplomatic incentives, and adapt them to other countries developing WMD.


1. Both a senior administration official and a Department of State official interviewed for this article said they were unaware that any such promises had been made or that any discussions regarding weapons of mass destruction were held before March 2003.

2. Gas centrifuges provide one method for enriching uranium, which can be used in civilian nuclear reactors when enriched to low levels and in nuclear weapons when enriched to higher levels.

3. It is worth noting that the UN sanctions did not result from Libya’s suspected weapons programs.

4. George Perkovich and Silvia Manzanero, “Plan B: Using Sanctions to End Iran’s Nuclear Program,” ACT, May 2004, p. 20.