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 MuammarQaddafi to get rid of his previously secret nuclear-weapons program,according to U.S. and British officials, Western diplomats in Tripoliand a key adviser to Col. Qaddafi.

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

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

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

In a September 2002 letter, British Prime Minister Tony Blairhectored Qaddafi about Libyan support for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabweand about the weapons programs. Two months later, Qaddafi sent an11-page reply, "essentially saying, 'Why are you picking on me?'" aBritish official says. The established nuclear powers had 30,000warheads, while Israel had perhaps 80. "Anything Libya might havewould be a drop in the bucket," Qaddafi wrote.

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

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

Officials involved in the talks acknowledge that the Libyansremained divided over which course to pursue. "While they carried onnegotiations with us, they continued with their WMD programs," aBritish official said. During the summer of 2003, Libyannuclear-weapons scientists rushed to fill outstanding orders forequipment they needed for their secret bomb program.

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

The centrifuge parts were manufactured at Scomi PrecisionEngineering in Malaysia, according to specifications provided byPakistani nuclear scientist Abdel Qader Khan. Shipped to Dubai, theywere transferred onto a German-owned freighter, the BBC China, andlabeled as "used machinery."

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

Qaddafi now sought counsel from an unusual source, which Insightcan reveal here for the first time. One month before Qaddafi'shistoric announcement on Dec. 19, 2003, he met in Tripoli withvisiting Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. "During their privatemeeting, Qaddafi asked Kuchma how America had treated him when hegave up his nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union," saysWeldon, who heard the story directly from Ukrainian Foreign MinisterKostyantyn Hryshchenko. Kuchma suggested that Qaddafi broaden histies 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-weaponsprogram took place in early December 2003 along the borders of theTigris River near Tikrit, when U.S. soldiers pulled former Iraqidictator Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole."When Qaddafi watched aU.S. medic probe Saddam's hair for lice and poke around his mouth, hewas stunned," several sources tell Insight. Western diplomats inTripoli 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 inresponse."

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

Ultimately, the credit for the dramatic change in direction goesto Qaddafi, a Western ambassador in Tripoli believes: "He understoodthat his revolution could not continue unless he delivered moreprosperity to Libyans, and the only way to do that was by renewingrelations with the West." Now it's up to the United States to deliverits side of the bargain, he adds, by lifting sanctions and resumingnormal trade with Libya.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

For more, read the CoverStory, "Breakthrough With Muammar Qaddafi."