Politics & Policy

Libya, WMDs, and Musa Kusa

To a dictator, WMDs are the best protection against U.S. intervention.

If human-rights abuses were the primary determinant of U.S. interventions, then certainly the abuse of the Iranian, Syrian, and North Korean people would qualify at least as easily as the abuse of the Libyan people. Qaddafi is a crazy dictator, but is he really worse than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, or Bashar al-Asad? Libya’s killing of peaceful protestors is terrible, but is it more terrible than the torture, murder, and rape perpetrated by the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Syria on their unhappy citizens?

Unfortunately, the difference is that while Libya gave up its WMD programs, Iran, North Korea, and Syria have kept theirs. Iran and North Korea have aggressive nuclear-weapons programs, and Syria’s was impeded only thanks to Israel’s attack on their North Korean–built nuclear-reprocessing facility. All three are suspected of having both chemical- and biological-weapons programs, and each is pursuing ballistic missile capabilities of increasing range.

The Obama administration has advocated dialogue rather than action in response to these countries’ pursuit of WMD programs, and the weakest of responses to their human-rights violations. For example, at a June 23, 2009, press conference, President Obama responded to Iran’s attacks on peaceful protestors: “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.” He added, however, that “the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.”

Over a year later, on Sept. 23, 2010, speaking to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama addressed Iran in the context of a world without nuclear weapons: “The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it.” Almost two years later, the toughest action the Obama administration has taken is an executive order authorizing the imposition of financial sanctions and visa ineligibilities on eight Iranian government officials who have been tied to the serious human-rights abuses surrounding Iran’s 2009 presidential election.


The defection of Libya’s foreign minister, Musa Kusa, has been hailed as evidence that the military intervention is having a positive impact. But it is better explained by the role he played in the elimination of Libya’s WMD programs.  

Musa Kusa has an odd and disturbing background. Kusa went to college in the U.S., where he reportedly became a big fan of Michigan State football. Later he headed the Libyan intelligence services; reportedly, he bears culpability for PanAm 103 and a domestic reign of terror. He was also, however, the chief negotiator with the U.S. and the U.K. on the possible elimination of Libya’s nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs.

On Dec. 19, 2003, President Bush announced that Qaddafi had “publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country. . . . As the Libyan government takes these essential steps and demonstrates it seriousness, its good faith will be returned.” By the end of December 2003, the U.S. and U.K. had agreed on an implementation-and-verification plan, to which the Libyan government agreed in early January 2004. Libya acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in February 2004, and, in the presence of U.S., U.K., and CWC observers, had destroyed over 3,000 unfilled chemical munitions.

By early March 2004, the U.S. had achieved the most verifiable form of elimination — removal to the U.S. — of over 1,000 metric tons of dangerous nuclear and missile equipment and material. The U.S. also visited chemical facilities that had been converted or eliminated consistent with CWC requirements, as well as facilities that had been part of Libya’s biological-weapons program. Libya has been in the process of eliminating its remaining chemical precursors and agents with CWC verification. Libya also agreed not to acquire MTCR-class missiles and to cease all trade with North Korea and Iran. It began cooperating with the U.S. on counterterrorism.

Musa Kusa, then still the head of Libya’s intelligence services, was the individual within the regime who ensured that the elimination was implemented. At the time, I was the head of the State Department’s efforts to eliminate WMD in Libya. When the U.S. encountered roadblocks, an approach to Musa Kusa got the effort back on track. On the other hand, when a U.S. news crew went to Libya to try to cover the U.S. role in the elimination of the WMD programs and the lead reporter called me in Washington because they couldn’t track down the American team, I told her to tell her Libyan escorts to call Musa Kusa, since he would be the only one who could give approval for any such access. She repeated my directions to her escorts, then, after a pause, said: “Oooh, they DO NOT want to contact him!” I met Musa Kusa only once, in a U.S./U.K./Libyan meeting in London. Something about his eyes made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The powerful position Musa Kusa had in Libya would suggest that he would be among the last defectors from Qaddafi’s regime. I strongly suspect, however, that Kusa’s life was at risk at Qaddafi’s hand for his role in the elimination of Libya’s WMD programs.


While it is hard to complain about getting rid of Qaddafi, the good of Obama and the international community’s taking military action is, for me, tainted — because it follows a lack of meaningful response to equally or significantly more brutal abuses by states that possess weapons of mass destruction.

What lesson will be learned in states considering pursuing or retaining WMD programs? If you have no WMD and cooperate with the U.S. on terrorism, but kill protestors, the U.S. and U.N. might enforce tough resolutions, announce that the leader “has to go,” and initiate military action. But if you keep or pursue nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile programs, you have little or nothing to fear from the U.S. and the international community — even if you also aggressively support terrorists who kill Americans and others, and arrest, torture, rape, and kill protestors. The U.S. and the international community have demonstrated that WMD is a good insurance policy against interference and attack.

I recall an unpleasant meeting I had early in the second Bush term with a senior foreign-service officer at the State Department. My goal was to explain why we verifiers were interested in moving forward on the positive/carrot parts of the relationship with Libya following the elimination of their WMD programs. We wanted more countries to make the strategic decision not to pursue WMD and to eliminate those programs they were pursuing. I believed it was important to demonstrate that Qaddafi was right when he said that WMD programs make a country less secure.

The senior foreign-service officer disagreed, saying: “Libya is just a weak, unarmed country, and we can treat them any way we want.” Apparently he was right.

— Paula A. DeSutter was assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance from 2002 to 2009, and had lead responsibility within the U.S. government for verifying and implementing U.S. participation in the elimination of Libya’s WMD programs.


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