By David E. Sanger
In late 2009 the Obama administration was leaning on Col. Muammar el-Qadhafi and his son, Seif, to allow the removal from Libya of the remnants of the country's nuclear weapons programme: casks of highly enriched uranium.
Meeting with the American Ambassador, Gene A. Kretz, the younger Qadhafi complained that the United States had retained “an embargo on the purchase of lethal equipment” even though Libya had turned over more than $100 million in bomb-making technology in 2003. Libya was “fed up,” he told Mr. Kretz, at Washington's slowness in doling out rewards for Libya's cooperation, according to cables released by WikiLeaks.
Today, with father and son preparing for a siege of Tripoli, the success of a joint American-British effort to eliminate Libya's capability to make nuclear and chemical weapons has never, in retrospect, looked more important.
Senior administration officials and Pentagon planners, as they discuss sanctions and a possible no-fly zone to neutralise the Libyan air force, say that the 2003 deal removed Colonel Qadhafi's biggest trump card: the threat of using a nuclear weapon, or even just selling nuclear material or technology, if he believed it was the only way to save his 42-year rule. While Colonel Qadhafi retains a stockpile of mustard gas, it is not clear he has any effective way to deploy it.
“Imagine the possible nightmare if we had failed to remove the Libyan nuclear weapons programme and their longer range missile force,” said Robert Joseph, who played a central role in organising the effort in 2003, in the months just after the invasion of Iraq.
“You can't know for sure how far the Libyan programme would have progressed in the last eight years,” said Mr. Joseph, who left the Bush administration a few years after the Libya events, partly because he believed it had gone soft on nuclear rogue states. But given Colonel Qadhafi's recent threats, he said on February 28, “there is no question he would have used whatever he felt necessary to stay in power.”
Whether he would have is, of course, unknowable.
But Colonel Qadhafi appeared to sense that loss of leverage over the last two years. The cables indicate a last-minute effort to hold on to the remnants of the programme, less to assure his regime's survival than to have some bargaining chips to get the weapons and aid that Colonel. Qadhafi and his son insisted they were promised.
The cache of nuclear technology that Libya turned over to the United States, Britain and international nuclear inspectors in early 2004 was large — far larger than American intelligence experts had expected. There were more than 4,000 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium. There were blueprints for how to build a nuclear bomb — missing some critical components but good enough to get the work started.
The whole package of goods came from a deal the Qadhafis struck with Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of the architects of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, who built the world's largest black-market network in nuclear technology. The $100 million to $200 million that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) later estimated that Libya spent on the nuclear project has never been recovered. For their part, the Libyans could never get the system working; many of the large centrifuges were still in their wooden packing crates when they were turned over.
The haul was so large that President George W. Bush, with photographers in tow, flew to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to celebrate a rare victory against nuclear proliferation. He briefly noted the success in his recent memoir, “Decision Points,” saying that with the surrender of the weapons Libya “resumed normal relations with the world.” Mr. Bush lifted restrictions on doing business with Libya and praised Colonel Qadhafi, saying his action have “made our country and our world safer.”
In Libya, the story was told very differently. In an interview with The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a documentary, “Nuclear Jihad,” Seif Qadhafi complained that the West never followed through on many of its promises.
By 2009, when the Qadhafis were refusing to turn over the remaining highly enriched uranium, he said the decision to give up the weapons had been “contingent on ‘compensation' from the U.S. including the purchase of conventional weapons and non-conventional military equipment,” a cable in late 2009 reported to the Obama administration.
Colonel Qadhafi, his son said, was unhappy that the centrifuges ended up in the United States, which he called a “big insult to the Leader,” compounded by the fact that little compensation followed.
Today Obama administration officials say that whether or not the Bush administration carried through on its promises, the deal deprived Mr. Qadhafi of far more fearsome weapons that he might have reached for as he attempts to stay in office.
While it is unclear whether he might have ultimately succeeded in building nuclear weapons, as part of the deal he gave up thousands of shells filled with chemical weapons.
“They were bulldozed,” William Tobey, a former senior official in the Energy Department under Mr. Bush recalled on February 28. While Mr. Qadhafi has many tons of mustard gas left, he said, “it's very difficult to handle and I'm not sure it's useful” to the Libyan leader.
But the message of the Libyan experience to other countries under pressure to give up their arsenals may not be the one Washington intends.
Iran and North Korea, who have often been urged by the West to follow Libya's example, may conclude that Mr. Qadhafi made a fatal error.
While South Korea is dropping leaflets in North Korea alerting its population to the uprisings in the Middle East, senior South Korean officials acknowledged in interviews last week that should North Korea face a similar uprising, it could use the threat to unleash its arsenal — which includes six to a dozen nuclear weapons by most estimates — in an effort to keep neighbouring countries from encouraging the regime's ouster.
“When the North collapses — and one day it will, of course — we're going to face a problem that we've been spared in Libya,” one senior South Korean official said on February 25 in Seoul, declining to speak on the record about most sensitive contingency planning involving South Korean and American officials. “You have to bet that the leadership is going to threaten to use its weapons to stay in power. Even if they are bluffing, it's going to change the entire strategy.”
Source: New York Times News Service