The Magazine


Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
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THE COLLAPSE OF AMERICA'S LIBYA POLICY -- nearly lost in the recent crush of news -- should not be allowed to pass unnoticed, for the Clinton administration's reversal of almost seven years of consistent policy on the Pan Am 103 bombing is highly damaging. Not only does the administration's surrender of our long-standing position undercut its own "war on terrorism," it also heightens the concurrent crisis in our Iraq policy. Like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi is on the verge of escaping United Nations sanctions, a goal the two have been pursuing since the Gulf War.

Heretofore, the United States has insisted that the two men suspected of destroying Pan Am 103 be surrendered for trial either here or in Scotland -- here because 189 of those who died in the explosion were Americans; Scotland because 11 people on the ground were killed when the plane crashed near Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. Now, secretary of state Madeleine Albright proposes that the accused be tried before a Scottish court in the Netherlands. Enormous uncertainties remain about how the proposal would be implemented if the Libyans accepted.

Although the next step is far from clear, several consequences of the administration's retreat have already emerged. First, the possibility of the suspects' receiving the death penalty if convicted has been eliminated, since Scottish law, unlike U.S. law, does not provide for capital punishment. While the administration has never been a strong death-penalty proponent and thus may not feel it has given much away, the Libyans have eagerly pocketed the concession and are beginning to bargain for others.

Second, by giving in to the Libyans on the location of the trial, the Clinton administration has hopelessly muddied its supposed new policy against international terrorism. Leaks to the effect that Washington would accept trial of the Pan Am 103 suspects in a third country originally appeared in July, before the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But, incredibly, even after those bombings, as the United States was retaliating with cruise missiles against terrorist camps in Afghanistan and a nerve-gas production facility in Sudan, the administration went ahead and made official its retreat from a key demand on Pan Am 103.

One can certainly argue that the Bush administration's reliance on U.N. sanctions against Libya was incorrect and that a military response would have been more effective. But even if this is so, it can hardly excuse the current retreat. More Americans died in the destruction of Pan Am 103 than in the embassy bombings, yet our policy in the former is legal maneuvering, while in the latter it is cruise missiles. What is the justification for pursuing two utterly contradictory approaches simultaneously? We can be certain foreign allies and foes alike are wondering which policy is serious. As is so often the case, the Clinton administration cannot explain.

A third consequence of the administration's shift is the fresh wound to its own credibility. It presented the new policy to Libya as a "take it or leave it" proposition. Since the original Bush-Clinton demand that the trial take place in the United States or Scotland was already "take it or leave it," one wonders who will be gullible enough to think this latest version not subject to still further revision. Certainly not the Libyans. After only a momentary hesitation, they began demanding further negotiations and concessions, just as they have done, ceaselessly, since they first faced the prospect of economic sanctions in 1991.

Here is where the administration's gambit is doomed. Secretary Albright argues that if Libya fails to produce the defendants for trial in the Netherlands, increased sanctions will be justified, but she is surely blustering. The administration is on the verge of abandoning the U.N. sanctions against Irag, and by its incompetent diplomacy it has already effectively abandoned the U.N. weapons-inspection system. There is no reason to think that the Clinton team will do better in the case of Libya. On the contrary, by ratcheting down U.S. demands, Washington leaves the Libyans in a stronger position than ever to chip away at whatever sanctions remain in place. This is already happening. After the Security Council voted unanimously on August 27 to suspend sanctions upon delivery of the defendants, the presidents of four African neighbors violated the sanctions by flying to Libya to celebrate the 29th anniversary of Qaddafi's accession to power.