In December 2007, Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi toured Europe, triumphant. No longer an international outcast, he received a statesman's welcome. Feted by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, he could ignore slights by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. After all, Kouchner may have refused to dine with him, but Qadhafi still walked away with nearly $15 billion in new contracts. Across Europe, Qadhafi's pariah status is a fading memory.
European leaders highlight their rehabilitation of Libya as evidence that their policy of slow, deliberative engagement works. On October 11, 2004, for example, the European Union's Council of Ministers, citing Tripoli's willingness to surrender its WMD program and compensate victims for Libya's past terrorism, agreed to lift the trade and arms embargo against Libya. Explaining the move, European Commission Ambassador Marc Pierini credited "the constant and confident dialogue entertained by Colonel Muammar Qadhafi and President Romano Prodi during these decisive years."
The European engagement was a decade long. In 1995, European foreign ministers meeting in Barcelona launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership that sought to establish political and security dialogue, gradually establish a free trade zone and encourage civil society. The European Union initially excluded Libya but, four years later, the EU Presidency invited Libyan observers to attend a follow-up conference in Stuttgart. There, they extended Libya an offer of membership upon the lifting of UN sanctions and the Libyan government's acquiescence to existing Barcelona protocols.
European policy is cynical, however, based more on a desire to promote trade and constrain African migration to the Schengen zone, and less on any human rights or political reform concerns. Qadhafi may be the guest of honor in European capitals, but any change in the Libyan leader or his regime is more illusionary than real. While European officials and their US counterparts recast Libya as an integrated member of the international community, Qadhafi's attitudes toward terrorism and human rights remain unchanged.
Take terrorism: In 2004, as European officials welcomed Qadhafi on his first trip to Europe in 15 years and discussed his rehabilitation, the colonel reminded them of what he would do if they did not meet his demands. Standing beside Prodi, the Libyan leader warned: "We do hope that we shall not be obliged or forced one day to go back to those days where we bomb our cars or put explosive belts around our beds and around our women." Diplomats can claim the Libyan leader has had a change of heart but, for Qadhafi, terrorism remains on the menu of acceptable options should European bribery or diplomacy prove less than fruitful.
The Libyan regime's renunciation of terrorism was never substantive. As the Libyan government negotiated payments to victims of the Pan Am flight 103 and UTA 772 bombings, Tripoli funneled money to Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines, swelling the group's ranks and increasing the frequency and lethality of its attacks. More recently Iraqi officials reported that Seif al-Islam, the Libyan leader's son and the face of reform at European cocktail parties, financed a group responsible for bombings and dozens of deaths in Mosul.
Qadhafi's conversion on human rights has been no more sincere. He released five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held on fabricated charges not because European engagement had encouraged a change of heart, but rather because European officials arranged a ransom payment of $400 million and Paris agreed to ship advanced weaponry and even nuclear technology to the North African state. That the arrangement allowed Qadhafi to draw moral equivalency between airline bombings and Bulgarian nurses seeking to help Libyan children should embarrass European diplomats for decades.
Europe's willingness to prioritize commercial ties above any other consideration also undercuts international efforts to prosecute war crimes. As former Liberian President Charles Taylor awaits judgment in The Hague, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has uncovered evidence that Qadhafi trained and underwrote the forces that most victimized civilians. European willingness to exculpate such criminality for a cash payment makes a mockery of its human rights rhetoric. Even as European statesmen and company chairmen visit Tripoli to sign lucrative contracts, Fathi Eljhami, Libya's leading advocate of political reform, remains in solitary confinement, unacknowledged in Brussels.
Libya has not changed, US and European testaments to the contrary notwithstanding. Today, Brussels and Washington both hold Libya up as a success, either for engagement or the Bush doctrine. Reality matters. Turning a blind eye, however, to the falsity of reform is dangerous. Not only does Qadhafi continue to sponsor terror and violate human rights, the mercurial leader may at any time use the European injection of cash and technology to resurrect his weapons programs. Failure will not be limited to Libya, however. Rogues like Syria, Iran, and North Korea now understand that western demands are ephemeral and delay will pay.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.