With the handover to the United Nations this spring for trial in the Hague of two Libyan suspects in the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, UN sanctions on Libya were “suspended,” but not lifted. This ended the principal hardships imposed since 1992 upon the Libyan people, which were the ban on international air travel to and from Libya, and the resulting high prices and scarcity of foreign-made goods and equipment, which had to be imported via Libya’s neighbors.
U.S. sanctions against Americans doing business with Libya or even travel by Americans to Libya remain in place, but obviously will be re-examined at some point. The original object of the U.S. sanctions was to force Libya to turn over the suspects and, if they are found guilty, to force Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to accept responsibility for the crash of the Boeing 747 in which all 259 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans, and 11 people on the ground were killed.
However, Gadhafi has already distanced himself from the suspects by saying during a BBC interview in October 1998 that the bombing might have resulted from Libyans “taking their own revenge” for the U.S. bomb raids on Tripoli two years earlier.
The principal effects of the U.S. sanctions have been to penalize U.S. oil companies, which now operate in Libya with a U.S. government waiver but without U.S. citizen employees there, and to discourage other U.S. companies from doing any business at all with Libya.
As for any effect of the U.S. sanctions on Libya itself, no other countries have the success rate of American exploration and drilling companies in finding and extracting petroleum around the world, but there are few other goods or services provided by U.S. firms in any field that cannot be matched by European, Asian or other sources.
So the principal result of the U.S. sanctions was to exacerbate the unfavorable U.S. balance of payments, and to inflict some residual hardships on Libyans with relatives in or educational or business ties with the United States. Probably, therefore, as many Americans as Libyans are hoping that the trial of the two suspects, Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, who have been on leave with pay from their jobs with Libyan Arab Airlines for the past seven years, will somehow bring closure to the long-running dispute.
There is little other than circumstantial evidence that Libyans had a hand in the catastrophe. Perhaps the most compelling such item is that nine months after Lockerbie, in December 1989, a French airliner was blown up over Africa, with the loss of 170 people, after France had intervened against Libya in its border war with Chad.
The conventional wisdom, therefore, is that if the defendants are acquitted, the U.S.-compiled case against Libya collapses, opening the way for a lifting of the UN sanctions. Or that a guilty verdict will open the way to a Libyan government compensation offer to survivors of the victims.
However, a third verdict, “not proven,” is also available under Scottish law, under which the two Libyans will be tried in the Netherlands according to Scottish law. In the likely event that the court, consisting of three Scottish judges, reaches that conclusion, the defendants walk, the UN will probably change the status of its sanctions from “suspended” to abolished, and the U.S. will be left with no face-saving way to re-establish a normal relationship with Libya.
Such a result will call for more creative U.S. diplomacy than a North African version of the made-in-Israel policy of “dual containment” which initially dominated the Clinton administration’s Middle Eastern diplomacy, and which has had no ameliorating effect on the conduct of either Iraq or Iran, the two countries at which it was aimed.
The U.S., in fact, has been quietly backing away from dual containment for the past two years, despite vigorous complaints from what Israeli peaceniks have come to call “the Jewish thought police” in the United States, meaning Israel’s vigorous Washington lobby and its unquestioning supporters within the U.S. Jewish community.
In deciding what the U.S. should be doing about the impasse it has reached with Libya, there are two initial questions to consider. Is Gadhafi a seemingly incurable troublemaker or have his eccentricities been exaggerated deliberately by the Western media?
Strangely, the Israel lobby’s principal American think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicts “a fundamental reorientation of Libya’s foreign policy” in a study it released on Aug. 16. It complains, however, that Gadhafi’s “antagonism toward Israel” has not “ameliorated.” This means that Israel’s backers in the U.S. media will continue an unrelenting campaign to keep alive the memory of his transgressions, real and imagined.
There is a sinister aspect to this campaign of which Americans should be aware in making judgements about where U.S.-Libyan relations should go from here. That is the fact that the current U.S.-Libyan problems were deliberately instigated, and fueled, by Israeli actions. Unfortunately, and this is the sinister part of it, the U.S. media observes a near-total taboo in discussing this Israeli role, although the facts are indisputable.
For example, who, besides the Libyans themselves, remembers that the first victims in the brutal and seemingly endless tit-for-tat acts of retaliation involving Libya and, later, the United States were the 111 passengers and crew members killed in the crash of a Libyan commercial airliner, downed by the Israelis, as it descended, slightly off course, over Israeli-occupied Sinai for a routine landing at Cairo International Airport.
The Israelis called it a case of mistaken identity. It is not clear why U.S. journalists never asked why the Israeli occupiers of Egyptian Sinai were firing surface-to-air missiles at a civilian airliner at all, regardless of its identity. Nor why the U.S. media obstinately refuses to recognize the role of this early outrage, and Western indifference toward it, in the shaping of Gadhafi’s mindset about the West in general, and the United States in particular.
Whether the Israeli killing of such a large number of Libyan civilians was or was not accidental, the next documented Israeli intervention was a deliberate and successful attempt to instigate hostilities between Libya and the United States in February 1986. It led directly to the April 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya’s two major cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, in which there were some 40 Libyan casualties, including the death of Gadhafi’s infant adopted daughter (she had been orphaned when her father, a former Syrian air attache in Libya, was killed in aerial combat with Israel.) If, indeed, the two accused Libyans were responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, it was clearly direct retaliation for the U.S. attack.
The manner in which Israel’s Mossad tricked the United States into attacking Libya was described in detail by former Mossad case officer Victor Ostrovsky in “The Other Side of Deception,” the second of two revealing books he wrote after he left Israel’s foreign intelligence service. The story began in February 1986 when Israel sent a team of navy commandos in miniature submarines into Tripoli to land and install a “Trojan,” a 2-meter-long communications device, on the top floor of a five-storey apartment building. The device, only about 20 centimeters in diameter, was capable of receiving messages broadcast by Mossad’s LAP (LohAma Psicologit psychological warfare or disinformation section) on one frequency and automatically relaying the broadcasts on a different frequency used by the Libyan government.
The commandos activated the Trojan and left it in the care of a lone Mossad agent in Tripoli who had leased the apartment and who had met them at the beach in a rented van. “By the end of March, the Americans were already intercepting messages broadcast by the Trojan,” Ostrovsky writes. “Using the Trojan, the Mossad tried to make it appear that a long series of terrorist orders were being transmitted to various Libyan embassies around the world.” As the Mossad had hoped, the transmissions were deciphered by the Americans and construed as ample proof that the Libyans were active sponsors of terrorism. What’s more, the Americans pointed out, Mossad reports confirmed it.
“The French and the Spanish, though, were not buying into the new stream of information. To them it seemed suspicious that suddenly, out of the blue, the Libyans, who had been extremely careful in the past, would start advertising their future actions. The French and the Spanish were right. The information was bogus,” he continues.
Ostrovsky, who is careful in what he writes, does not blame Mossad for the bombing, only a couple of weeks after the Trojan was installed, of the La Belle discotheque in West Berlin, which cost the lives of two American soldiers and a Turkish woman. But he convincingly documents the elaborate Mossad operation built around the Trojan, which led the U.S. to blame Libya for the bombing of the Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. soldiers.
The plot was given added credibility since it took place at a time when Gadhafi had “closed” the airspace over the Gulf of Sidra to U.S. aircraft, and then suffered the loss of two Libyan aircraft trying to enforce the ban, which were shot down by carrier-based U.S. planes.
The United States reacted promptly to the attack on the Berlin nightclub. On April 16, 1986, it sent U.S. aircraft from a base in England and from two U.S. carriers in the Mediterranean to drop more than 60 tons of bombs on Gadhafi’s office and residence in the Bab al-Azizia barracks in Tripoli, less than three blocks from the apartment containing the Trojan transmitter, and on military targets in and around Tripoli and Benghazi. Some of the U.S. missiles and bombs went astray, inflicting damage on residential buildings, including the French Embassy in Tripoli. The planes flying from England were forced to skirt both French and Spanish airspace, and one of them, a U.S. F-111, was shot down over Tripoli, killing the two crewmen.
“Operation Trojan was one of the Mossad’s greatest successes,” Ostrovsky writes. “It brought about the air strike on Libya that President Reagan had promised.” He doesn’t mention, however, the other apparent direct result of the Mossad “success:” The bombing of PanAm Flight 103.
Despite the refusal by mainstream American media to revisit the well-documented facts presented above, they contain some obvious political lessons for the United States. For example, the U.S. government might decide to continue its sanctions on Libya in retaliation for the deaths of the 270 victims of the PanAm bombing, regardless of the verdict of the Scottish judges. In that case, however, true justice would also require the imposition of similar U.S. sanctions against Israel for instigating the U.S. bombing of Tripoli, in retaliation for the bombing of La Belle Discotheque, a crime which the Israelis knew from the beginning the Libyans had not committed.
Richard H. Curtiss, a former senior officials with the U.S. Information Agency and now Executive Editor of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, contributed this article to The Daily Star