Release date: March 15, 2004

Issue: 3/30/04


How George W. Bush Got Qaddafi's Attention

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


Four events were critical to convincing Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi to get rid of his previously secret nuclear-weapons program, according to U.S. and British officials, Western diplomats in Tripoli and a key adviser to Col. Qaddafi.

It was not patient diplomacy, although that helped. Nor was it a U.S. or British desire to rehabilitate Qaddafi. Instead, it was a combination of implied threats and U.S. and British actions on the high seas and in Iraq that convinced Qaddafi he had not a moment to lose before his government became the next Axis of Evil regime in U.S. gun sights. The story of how the Bush administration achieved a bloodless victory in Libya demonstrates how force and the credible threat of force are needed for the tools of intelligence and diplomacy to work.

"Until Sept. 11, Qaddafi was hoping he could carry on with a clandestine nuclear-weapons program and get away with it," a Western diplomat in Tripoli tells Insight. But when he saw the response of the Bush administration in Afghanistan, "he realized he couldn't keep going as before."

After defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush stepped up his war of words against Saddam Hussein, warning that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of regimes known to sponsor terror presented an unacceptable threat to the United States. "Qaddafi heard those words and recognized himself," a U.S. official said. "He believed the president's words were aimed at him."

In a September 2002 letter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hectored Qaddafi about Libyan support for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and about the weapons programs. Two months later, Qaddafi sent an 11-page reply, "essentially saying, 'Why are you picking on me?'" a British official says. The established nuclear powers had 30,000 warheads, while Israel had perhaps 80. "Anything Libya might have would be a drop in the bucket," Qaddafi wrote.

Diplomacy alone was failing to lead Qaddafi to break from the past. It wasn't until U.S. and British troops crossed into Iraq on March 19, 2003, that Qaddafi detailed Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahmane Chalgam to begin talks with British and U.S. officials in London. "The Iraq war made it clear that the U.S. and the U.K. were serious about going after countries with WMD [weapons of mass destruction]," the British official adds. Even so, during the first meeting in March, "the Libyans were not candid. We had to show them that we knew more than they thought we knew before they opened up."

Behind the scenes, advisers to Qaddafi were arguing that Libya's security would be enhanced, not reduced, by giving up the nuclear program. "We had no delivery system," a top Qaddafi adviser tells Insight at the Libyan leader's office outside of Sirte. "I told the guide, 'If Libya were to start a nuclear war, our missiles won't even reach Malta. If the U.S. starts it, Libya will be erased from the map.'" He said he told Qaddafi as the meetings with the United States and the United Kingdom got under way in London last spring that it was better to get rid of the weapons and redirect the resources toward improving the economy than to risk an American attack.

Officials involved in the talks acknowledge that the Libyans remained divided over which course to pursue. "While they carried on negotiations with us, they continued with their WMD programs," a British official said. During the summer of 2003, Libyan nuclear-weapons scientists rushed to fill outstanding orders for equipment they needed for their secret bomb program.

In October 2003, with the help of Italian customs, a massive shipment of centrifuge components from Malaysia was seized in the Mediterranean en route to Libya. "It was a big shipment - the guts of what he needed," a U.S. official says. "That seizure broke the back of his program. Without it, he would have had to go back to square one."

The centrifuge parts were manufactured at Scomi Precision Engineering in Malaysia, according to specifications provided by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdel Qader Khan. Shipped to Dubai, they were transferred onto a German-owned freighter, the BBC China, and labeled as "used machinery."

Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have argued that the Libyan case shows that diplomacy works better in the war on terror than force. "If diplomacy was so effective," a Bush official involved in the interdiction effort tells Insight, "why did Col. Qaddafi continue to procure equipment at the same time our diplomats were talking?" After the seizure, the Libyans began to come clean. Only then were U.S. and British intelligence teams allowed to visit previously closed nuclear sites and to begin mapping out the true scope of the Libyan program.

Qaddafi now sought counsel from an unusual source, which Insight can reveal here for the first time. One month before Qaddafi's historic announcement on Dec. 19, 2003, he met in Tripoli with visiting Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. "During their private meeting, Qaddafi asked Kuchma how America had treated him when he gave up his nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union," says Weldon, who heard the story directly from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko. Kuchma suggested that Qaddafi broaden his ties beyond the administration and work with members of the U.S. Congress, as well.

The final event that sealed the fate of Qaddafi's nuclear-weapons program took place in early December 2003 along the borders of the Tigris River near Tikrit, when U.S. soldiers pulled former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole."When Qaddafi watched a U.S. medic probe Saddam's hair for lice and poke around his mouth, he was stunned," several sources tell Insight. Western diplomats in Tripoli agree that Saddam's capture "traumatized" the Libyan leader. "What happened is very clear," an administration official says. "Things happened, and immediately afterward the Libyans did things in response."

Until Saddam's capture, "we were still negotiating. Both sides were sparring back and forth," a British official involved in the talks says. "Things radically changed course after that." Just 10 days later, Qaddafi made his official announcement that Libya was giving up its WMD programs and had invited U.S. and British experts into the country to verify the dismantling of his weapons plants.

Ultimately, the credit for the dramatic change in direction goes to Qaddafi, a Western ambassador in Tripoli believes: "He understood that his revolution could not continue unless he delivered more prosperity to Libyans, and the only way to do that was by renewing relations with the West." Now it's up to the United States to deliver its side of the bargain, he adds, by lifting sanctions and resuming normal trade with Libya.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

For more, read the Cover Story, "Breakthrough With Muammar Qaddafi."

Original story