Why the West Will Be in no Rush to Lift Libya Sanctions

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Western leaders still want Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi isolated

The Lockerbie trial may be over, but the standoff it was designed to resolve between Libya and the West continues. U.S. and British leaders responded to Wednesday's conviction of Libyan intelligence operative Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am 103 by insisting that sanctions will not be lifted until the Libyan government accepts responsibility for the attack and pays compensation to the families of the victims. The response from Tripoli, in the words of its foreign minister: "Never." Well, never say never — Libya's ambassador to London hinted Thursday that Tripoli may indeed be prepared to pay compensation once Megrahi has completed his appeal process. But accepting responsibility remained out of the question.

It's not hard to find reasons why the regime of Muammar Ghaddafi may be loath to accept responsibility for the attack even it agrees to compensate the victims. For one thing, to accept responsibility for a terror attack on a U.S. target that killed 270 people might still invite reprisals — indeed, U.S. counterterrorism officials told the New York Times Wednesday that the trial had showed the limits of using criminal law as a weapon against terrorism, because the real authors of the attack remained unpunished. Read the subtext of those comments, and it's plain to see why there's unlikely to be a mea culpa from Colonel Ghaddafi anytime soon.

Who's the boss?

And even though the culprit has now been proved to have been an active-duty Libyan intelligence operative, there's still no certainty in the Western intelligence community over whether the original decision to attack Pan Am 103 originated in Tripoli, or whether Libyan intelligence was subcontracting on behalf of Iran or a Syrian-backed Palestinian group.

Still, the Libyans have good reason for wanting to satisfy Western concerns. Ghaddafi badly wants to break out of the U.N. sanctions regime that has been in place since 1992. Modernizing his oil fields depends on access to Western technology currently denied him by sanctions. In fact, the only reason the Libyans handed over the two agents named in the Lockerbie indictment was the prospect of closing the matter and to allow the lifting of U.N. sanctions against Libya. Even then, it took eight years of coaxing by the Saudis and South Africa's then-president Nelson Mandela to persuade him to hand them over (with Ghaddafi demanding assurances that he wouldn't be held personally responsible, and that the trial would focus narrowly on the two agents).

But sanctions against Libya had proved useful for the West not only in pursuing the perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing, but — perhaps more important in the minds of Washington and London — boxing in one of the developing world's most persistent troublemakers, who had spent two decades making mischief throughout Africa and the Middle East. Having largely achieved that objective, Britain and the U.S. may be in no great hurry to resolve the Lockerbie standoff.

Compensation to be discussed

Libyan officials are to meet with representatives of Britain and the U.S. next week to discuss what remains to be done in order to have the sanctions lifted. Even though Libya has the backing of the Arab League in demanding an immediate end to sanctions, don't expect any movement soon. For one thing, the Libyans want to wait until Megrahi's appeal is over before considering compensation — and that'll be just fine with the West. Ghaddafi's neighbors may begin simply ignoring sanctions as they have been doing with Iraq, but it could still be years before the West lifts its embargo.