National Security & Defense

What Were the Lessons of Libya?

Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi in Tripoli, March 2011 (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
If John Bolton hopes to use the Libyan intervention as a model for North Korea, he needs to rethink his plan.

Donald Trump’s new national-security adviser, John Bolton, sat down for an interview last week and described his views on the upcoming talks with North Korea’s government. “I think we should insist that if this meeting is going to take place,” Bolton said, “it will be similar to discussions we had with Libya 13 or 14 years ago: How to pack up their nuclear weapons program and take it to Oak Ridge [National Laboratory in Tennessee], which is where the Libyan nuclear program [is now].” Bolton said there should be no U.S. offers of a peace treaty with North Korea — or even economic aid — in exchange for its concessions, and that he anticipated a very short meeting.

Is the region ready for war to destroy the North Korean regime and the wave of millions of North Korean refugees a conflict may produce? Perhaps they should get ready. The analogy to Libya is cold comfort.

Consider, the 2003 Libyan negotiations that Bolton mentions involved a two-step process. The first step was Libya finishing its obligations to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. That would lead to the lifting of U.N. sanctions. To get out from under U.S. economic sanctions, Libya would have to give up its weapons of mass destruction. In the telling of Flynt L. Leverett, Bolton was deliberately left out of the loop during those negotiations because he, like other hawks, opposed using such carrots to entice rogue regimes.

Was this a good trade for Moammar Qaddafi’s regime? In the short term, it seemed so; it opened up Libya to foreign investment. And Qaddafi benefited personally, being welcomed to foreign capitals and entertaining Senator John McCain.

But in the not-so-short term, Qaddafi’s very public decision to give up his weapons of mass destruction dramatically lowered the price of internal rebellion against him. It also lowered the cost of regime change initiated by Western powers such as France and the United States. That opportunity came in 2011. Almost instantly, Western powers went beyond U.N. Security Council resolutions recommending military action to halt the loss of life in Libya’s civil conflict, and proceeded with actions aimed at changing the regime. They began bombing Qaddafi’s personal residences. Eventually, Qaddafi was found hiding in the coastal city of Sirte. He died being beaten and stabbed by a mob in a Libyan street, and his death was broadcast to the world via cellphone video.

If the Bush administration’s negotiations for Libyan disarmament are what Bolton wants to invoke, Kim Jong-un will surely be thinking about Qaddafi’s final moments. Moreover, Bolton wants to offer less in terms of tangible benefits for the North Korean state in exchange. When asked what the United States might concede, Bolton’s response was that the North Koreans were lucky to get a meeting with the president of the United States. Bolton wanted no repeats of giving aid, and suggested, “They should ask for reunification with South Korea.”

South Korea, however, struggles even to transition the relatively small trickle of North Korean escapees into its society. Does Bolton know if our ally even wants the U.S. to issue an ultimatum? Disarm and unify, or face war.

Was the U.S. intervention in Libya good for regional security? Of course not. The inability of the rebels or the assisting outside powers to stand up a legitimate government that could control the landmass of Libya led to anarchy. Along with that anarchy came disorganized attempts at ethnic cleansing against sub-Saharan African workers in Libya, the destabilization of neighboring Mali, and then the establishment of the Libyan coast as a center for human smuggling and mass migration into Europe over the Mediterranean. In turn, this has destabilized European politics, bringing about the near destruction of the EU’s Schengen border arrangements, and political turmoil. The swift ascent of populist parties in Italy is directly attributable to these events.

Was the U.S. intervention in Libya good for regional security? Of course not.

Unlike Libya, North Korea is surrounded by richer, more powerful nations. Some of them are antagonistic to the United States; some of them are important allies. And North Korea’s population is nearly four times the size of Libya’s. If we extend the analogy of Libya to the point of the regime falling, the human wave that could come crashing over the Yalu River into China, or towards the Russian military base in Vladivostok, would be enormous and unmanageable. Will these countries be grateful for the moral clarity President Trump brought to the coming negotiations? I doubt it if it means babysitting millions of desperately poor North Koreans.

North Korea doesn’t just threaten stability and peace with its nuclear-weapons program. It also threatens that stability because it has nearly 25 million desperate hostages. Anyone negotiating about the first threat needs to understand the nature of the second one.

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