WASHINGTON -- The White House portrayed Libya's promise to abandon weapons of mass destruction programs as affirmation of President Bush's hard-line strategy on arms proliferation and suggested the U.S.-led war in Iraq helped convince Moammar Gadhafi that he should act.
Some arms control experts, however, point to what is known about how and when the agreement came about and say that Libya's turnaround offers proof the United States should shift tactics in dealing with North Korea, Syria and other nations. A greater commitment is needed, they say, to the kind of patient but firm diplomacy that worked with Libya.
Opposite of Bush doctrine
"The president is trying hard to portray this as a victory for his strategy," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's nonproliferation project. "But when you look at this, it's almost the opposite of the Bush doctrine."
Announcing the Libya deal, Bush invoked the Iraq war that brought down Saddam Hussein as he issued a flat warning of "unwelcome consequences" for countries that do not follow Libya's lead.
White House officials promoted Friday's Libya announcement as vindication of Bush's decision to make war on Saddam, even though banned weapons, Bush's prime public reason for waging it, have not been found.
British officials say that perhaps just as important was the long diplomatic process of getting Libyan leader Gadhafi to take responsibility for the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Gadhafi initiated the weapons talks in March, amid the buildup in the Persian Gulf area to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The overtures came just after Libya agreed to a $2.7 billion settlement for the Pan Am bombing.
As a result, Britain pushed successfully for the lifting of U.N. penalties against Libya, a sprawling desert country in northwest Africa.
Libya first contacted the British, not the Americans, noted Daryl Kimball of the private Arms Control Association. Also, Libya had worked for several years to shed its pariah status before Iraq became an issue.
Many analysts say the war's aftermath has proved so difficult for the United States that other countries probably view U.S. military force as an unlikely option elsewhere right now.
"The plan was that Iraq was to be a message for everyone to either fall in line, or else," Cirincione said. "The problem is this threat is not very realistic."
In justifying war against Iraq but not other countries, the Bush administration has argued that combating the development of banned weapons requires different strategies in different situations.
Still, the administration's nonmilitary alternatives typically involve tough talk, a hard line against negotiating and the offer of few incentives to comply.
Critics contend the approach has produced little success.
North Korea, for instance, is well aware of the Iraq situation and, if anything, has "stiffened its spine" over the past three years of Bush's presidency, Kimball said.
Six-party negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions are suspended into at least early next year, with the United States accusing the communist country of demanding unacceptable conditions.
Syria, despite recent positive moves, still hosts Palestinian militant groups and is suspected of seeking biological and chemical weapons and helping insurgents in Iraq.
Iran, however, signed an important accord last week to open its nuclear facilities to international inspections.
That breakthrough was the result of months of European-led negotiations that took a pro-engagement position toward Tehran. The United States had supported threatening Iran with U.N. sanctions.
A combination of firm but respectful engagement with the clear promise of a reward is also what appeared to work with Libya, with Britain and the United States acting quietly behind the scenes.
"The administration is changing the policy, in fact, without changing the words," Cirincione said.
A White House official said the administration had indicated to the Libyans that 17 years of U.S. penalties against Tripoli were on the table.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, even raised the possibility that Libya's quick fulfillment of its promises could result in the lifting of the sanctions within months.
After Libya's announcement, Bush praised Gadhafi personally, offering respectability to a once-reviled ruler, and made no mention of the Lockerbie crash even though Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the plane's downing.
"They relied more on carrots than sticks," Cirincione said. "And it worked."
On the Net:
State Department's Libya page: http://www.state.gov/p/nea/ci/c2415.htm