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Hard-line U.S. Foreign Policy: Symbolic Gain, Real Pain


Lately, the Bush administration and its neo-conservative supporters have been crowing about how President Bush’s hard-line foreign policy caused Muammar Qaddafi to end his unconventional (biological, chemical and nuclear) weapons programs and open them to international inspections. They have also been implying that the tough U.S. policy will continue to make bad regimes capitulate. But the gains from Qaddafi’s abandonment of such programs are mostly symbolic. In contrast, the president’s aggressive foreign policy has made the danger of a terrorist attack greater than at any time since the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Much has been made of the timing of Qaddafi’s first overture to negotiate an end to his unconventional weapons programs—in March of this year, shortly before the United States invaded Iraq. Although the imminent U.S. invasion may have prompted Qaddafi’s feelers to bargain away his weapons efforts, Qaddafi has been trying to mend fences with the United States and the West for a decade. Five years ago, he turned over two Libyans for trial in the terrorist bombing of flight Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988; recently, he agreed to pay reparations for the incident. British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that Qaddafi’s disarmament initiative arose from the success of those negotiations. Also, for several years Libya has eschewed terrorist attacks. And it is probably no coincidence that negotiations to end Libyan unconventional weapons programs accelerated only after the United States agreed to allow the United Nations to end economic sanctions against Libya. Qaddafi most likely wanted to see some gains from his years of efforts to reconcile with the West before he made any more concessions.

Moreover, Qaddafi has watched as the Bush administration was accused of hyping evidence about the threat of Iraqi unconventional weapons to justify the war and became bogged down in a Middle Eastern guerrilla quagmire—both of which make the probability of a U.S. invasion of Libya over its weapons programs much less likely. Also, Qaddafi has seen the Bush administration’s initial tough line toward the North Korean nuclear program melt into a much milder policy than that of the Clinton administration. In 1994, President Clinton had threatened war unless the North Korean regime froze its nuclear program. In the wake of North Korea’s subsequent admission of cheating on the nuclear freeze agreement and withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Bush administration is now making noises about negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear program in return for a normalization of relations with that nation—the right policy but hardly a hard-line policy that would send shivers down Qaddafi’s spine.

What did Qaddafi concede? He apparently had stockpiles of crude chemical weapons, a primitive biological weapons program and a fledgling nuclear program. Although Qaddafi’s renunciation of such weapons is a positive development, Libya’s ability to produce any of them has been undermined by the sanctions and Qaddafi’s purges of scientists. Thus, Qaddafi probably concluded that the minimal losses from giving up his crude weapons efforts would be more than offset by the economic rewards of playing “reformed dictator” poster boy in the Bush administration’s public relations efforts to defend hard-line policies in the Middle East, which lately have been under fire. So vanquishing the overrated “Libyan threat” is less of an accomplishment than meets the eye.

Meanwhile those truculent Bush administration policies are likely to pose the very real danger of “blowback” to Americans everywhere from an enraged Islamic world. Tom Ridge, the president’s own secretary of homeland security, raised the U.S. alert level and announced that the danger of a terrorist attack, possibly in the United States, is “perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11, 2001.” Despite the firestorm in even the mainstream media when Howard Dean perceptively noted that the capture of Saddam Hussein had not made the United States any safer, the administration now seems to be confirming that fact. And, when polled, 60 percent of Americans also agreed with Dean’s view. Thus, the hard-line Bush administration foreign policy toward the Middle East likely will reap only symbolic gain but very real pain.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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