Talking to the world's Gadhafis is a fool's errand

James Gordon/Wikipedia

Muammar Gadhafi in Dimashq, Syria on Apr. 7, 2009.

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  • The US and #Gadhafi have been at odds since #Carter with all attempts for diplomacy failing

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  • Other countries and world organizations had dialogue with Gadhafi in beliefs that would lead to reform #helied

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  • Obama learned that embracing the #military produces results in reforming a rogue regime #Libya #Gadhafi @mrubin1971ga

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President Obama should take pride in the expected downfall of Moammar Gadhafi, the Middle East's longest-reigning dictator. Still, it is ironic that a president who ran on promises to revitalize diplomacy has achieved his greatest successes by embracing the military.

How different Obama seems now from July 2007, when in campaign mode he declared, "The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment … is ridiculous." After all, it was American bullets and bombs--not talk--that led to Gadhafi's ouster (and bin Laden's death).

It's time Washington learn the lesson: Gadhafi's history shows that diplomacy with rogue rulers is a waste of time.

Try, and try again

Efforts to engage Gadhafi span as long as the mad colonel's reign. When Gadhafi and colleagues seized power in 1969, not only did the State Department's regional experts welcome the revolution, but some diplomats helped preserve his rule by leaking to the new junta the names of counter-conspirators. Washington's reward? The expulsion of most Americans and the closure of Wheelus Air Base, one of America's most important Cold War hubs.

"The world will be a safer place without Gadhafi, but the fact that he survived so long with the trappings of legitimacy is an indictment of international diplomacy." -- Michael Rubin

Relations remained cool through the next decade, but with Jimmy Carter in the White House, Gadhafi sought rapprochement. While Carter sought deniability for brother Billy's trip to Tripoli, privately the State Department was elated. "We would rate (Billy's visit) a very positive event, which has opened some doors for this embassy," Bill Eagleton, the senior American diplomat in Libya, reported. Again, the desire for outreach was nave. Taking inspiration from the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, a Libyan mob attacked and set fire to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, forcing its closure for a quarter century.

During the 1980s, relations between Washington and Tripoli reached their nadir. U.S. and Libyan pilots clashed in 1981 and 1986, and Gadhafi sponsored terrorism throughout Europe, culminating in the 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. President Reagan nicknamed Gadhafi "the madman of the Middle East" and described him as part of "a new, international version of Murder Incorporated." Gadhafi disparaged Reagan as a "child murderer" and a "vile actor."

Both the elder Bush and Clinton continued to isolate Gadhafi into the 1990s, much to the frustration of those whose faith in dialogue was near religious. In 1992, for example, former senator Gary Hart began to engage Gadhafi's henchmen against State Department wishes. Rather than achieve a breakthrough, however, dialogue convinced Gadhafi that he could avoid true consequences for his terror, delaying a Lockerbie resolution for years.

While President Clinton's aides subsequently credited their own secret dialogue for Gadhafi's nuclear about-face, Gadhafi's own henchmen subsequently acknowledged that the tyrant capitulated only when he saw American power in Iraq and on the high seas, where American forces helped interdict North Korean gear heading to Libya.

'Change' that never came

George W. Bush, however, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by believing that diplomacy could truly change the Libyan leader. In March 2004, Bush praised the release of Fathi El Jahmi, Libya's chief dissident. "You probably have heard, Libya is beginning to change her attitude about a lot of things," Bush said. Not quite: Two weeks later, Libyan forces rearrested El Jahmi. Bush did nothing. El Jahmi, who died from subsequent mistreatment, should be considered the first martyr of Libya's Arab Spring.

It is comforting to believe dialogue can change dictators, and diplomacy can break down walls. Engagement with Gadhafi became vogue. A 2003 Atlantic Council study argued that Gadhafi's reintegration rather than isolation would force reform, because Gadhafi's "arbitrary, authoritarian style is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world." The United Kingdom even released the only convicted Lockerbie bomber on humanitarian grounds as part of its outreach to Libya and his petrodollars.

Dozens of diplomats, academics and businessmen traveled to Tripoli to meet Gadhafi. A Libya sojourn became the mark of supposed Washington sophistication. In its latest annual report, the Council on Foreign Relations called a meeting with Gadhafi one of the year's "highlights." Hindsight, however, shows that the man had never changed. He used rapprochement not to reorient Libya, but rather to rearm and retrench.

Gadhafi was never sincere.

Negotiations became a means to an end, but not the West's end. When the uprising began six months ago, the world learned that Gadhafi had used the end of sanctions to squirrel away resources and weaponry to help him survive new rounds of international sanctions. Unanswered is why a reformed Gadhafi thought renewed sanctions inevitable had he planned to honor his commitments.

The world will be a safer place without Gadhafi, but the fact that he survived so long with the trappings of legitimacy is an indictment of international diplomacy. Dialogue should be a tool of statecraft for those who embrace international norms. Fortunately, Obama learned what his predecessors did not: The only way to reform a rogue regime is to oust the rogue ruler.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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