The Middle East Channel

Hit Qaddafi where it hurts by putting Libya back on the terrorism list

Almost two weeks into the vicious bloodletting in Libya, it is clear that Muammar Qaddafi believes that he can survive the revolt in his country. Violence and state-sponsored terrorism against innocent civilians is his response to this challenge. Yet he has survived such episodes before and has no reason to believe that he won’t survive ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Almost two weeks into the vicious bloodletting in Libya, it is clear that Muammar Qaddafi believes that he can survive the revolt in his country. Violence and state-sponsored terrorism against innocent civilians is his response to this challenge. Yet he has survived such episodes before and has no reason to believe that he won’t survive this one.

Therefore, despite the new sanctions being adopted, which may not be effective at changing Qaddafi’s behavior, it’s time for President Obama to go even further. Specifically, he must make an overt break from our country’s failed experiment of engagement with Qaddafi while also striking aggressively at Qaddafi’s money. This means that it’s time to immediately put Libya back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Doing this would not only help create leverage against Qaddafi right now, but would also correct one of the great diplomatic travesties of the past decade, when the Bush administration relaxed pressures on Qaddafi by taking Libya off the terrorism list in 2006. This disastrous move gave Qaddafi the international legitimacy and financial resources that he so craved, encouraging his current recalcitrance. It did this, despite his murderous ways, because he gave up his weapons of mass destruction programs, programs that he had no business creating but that nonetheless were a key American priority. 

As a result, despite no clear change in Qaddafi’s psychotic behavior, the Bush administration allowed Qaddafi to cultivate business ties with the international oil and defense firms that he so craved, as well as to gain seats of honor at multilateral bodies such as the United Nations Security Council. It’s clear that all that Qaddafi learned from this "normalization" experience was that he could manipulate the West and extort his way to legitimacy and riches. 

It’s important to remember however that the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation is one that Qaddafi fears. For a decade and a half, the United States sanctioned and ostracized Libya. And Qaddafi didn’t like it one bit. Libya was a pariah state in those days, a status that Qaddafi obsessively tried to counteract, ultimately succeeding. 

This means that Qaddafi is susceptible to international pressure, but that he needs to feel even more heat. By placing Qaddafi back on the terrorism list, President Obama would strike directly at the core of both Qaddafi’s image and money while making a clean break with our country’s failed rehabilitation of him.

Putting Libya on the list — and tying Libya’s designation to Qaddafi’s leadership, so that as soon as he’s gone, it would be rescinded — will help box-in Qaddafi in several key ways.

First, it will freeze American investment in Libya in its tracks. Oil interests were the hidden hand behind the Bush administration’s push to normalize relations with Libya, and Qaddafi has profited handsomely, to the tune of upwards of $150 billion for his family foundation. American companies will not withdraw from Libya unless compelled to do so, and they must be. Designating Libya a terrorist state will do this.

Second, it will make it clear to the Qaddafi’s cohorts that they too are at personal risk of both sanction and prosecution. Right now, they have nothing to fear and can rely on slow international processes to prevent their being sent to The Hague for war crimes anytime soon. By reclassifying Libya as a terrorist state, the stakes will immediately be raised on real individuals, clarifying that there will be costs for those who follow Qaddafi’s murderous ways. 

Third, it will empower American victims of Qaddafi’s past terrorism to be compensated for their suffering by seizing Libyan assets held in the U.S. In addition, by working on changes with Congress, this power could also be expanded to allow suffering Libyan civilians to obtain compensation. This is an issue I worked on deeply as a Senate aide and which has helped numerous victims of terrorism, including those from the Pan Am 103 and LaBelle discothèque bombing, to extract financial pain from the Qaddafis for their terrorism. Importantly, this would tie up the Qaddafi money in knots for years through the courts, immediately creating the targeted financial sanctions that many are calling for.

As President Obama has rightly pointed out, each country in the Middle East is unique.  America has played it right so far with the countries over whom we have some influence. But now is the real test of our ability to create meaningful new leverage to stop a violent crisis. Qaddafi will not stop his madness until he faces extreme pressures both from within his country and from without.

So now is the time for President Obama to make it clear to Qaddafi that his brief respite from pariah status is over. The President has the power to do this with a stroke of the pen. By putting an exclamation point on our condemnations and calling Qaddafi what he truly is — a terrorist — the U.S. will help make sure that the madman’s days are numbered and that the Libyan people will have a chance for a better future.

Joel Rubin is Deputy Director of the National Security Network and served as a Legislative Assistant in the U.S. Senate from 2006 – 2008, during which time he worked extensively on Libya issues.

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