CAMBRIDGE – Last month, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, died in his home in Tripoli. With his burial, the engrained mistrust between Libya and the West, epitomized by Lockerbie’s enduring political potency, should be interred as well. It is time to move on.
Over the last 24 years, the debates surrounding Megrahi’s prosecution and punishment have reflected Libya’s enigmatic relationship with the West. For example, though Libya’s economy is almost entirely dependent on Western expertise and markets to produce and consume its oil, former leader Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi pursued a virulently anti-Western foreign policy. Likewise, rather than seeking those truly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the United States and the United Kingdom wielded the tragedy as a diplomatic weapon against Libya.
This mutual mistrust and recrimination is more than a century old. In 1912, Italy, without provocation, wrested Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Ten years later, Benito Mussolini rose to power, and soon after, Italian authorities pursued ethnic cleansing of the Cyrenaican Bedouin, killing more than a quarter of the Libyan population.
After World War II, Italy renounced its claim to Libya in its peace treaty with the Allies. After a failed attempt to win United Nations approval to divide Libya into three trusteeships, Britain, which conquered the territory in 1942 and governed it for eight years, drew on US support to install Idris as-Sanussi as a united Libya’s first and only king.
As a kingdom, Libya’s foreign policy was pro-Western. Indeed, during the first decade after independence, the Libyan government received most of its revenue from the US and the UK, which leased territory for air bases during the Cold War. And when, in 1961, Libya began to export oil, American and British companies quickly gained a dominant position. King Idriss repeatedly tried to modify the initially favorable terms that he had offered them to promote exploration.
Qaddafi’s seizure of power in a coup d’etat 1969 marked a shift to an anti-Western stance. He aggressively challenged the prevailing international system of profit sharing between oil-producing countries and foreign companies, which had allowed the companies to control crude oil’s “posted price,” from which their fees to the government were derived.
Despite upending this vestige of the colonial order, Libya did not necessarily benefit. In 1970, the country’s crude-oil production stood at 3.4 million barrels per day. Since1974, when Libya took strategic control of its oil industry from Western companies, daily output has never topped two million barrels. Moreover, in the 1980’s, Qaddafi invaded Chad and became a major sponsor of international terrorism, effectively ruling out any prospect of attracting the foreign investment needed to maintain competitiveness.
In the wake of the Lockerbie bombing – at the time the deadliest terrorist attack in history, and still the deadliest on British soil – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan united in isolating Libya. They and their successors used Lockerbie as a pretext to press for the adoption of crippling UN sanctions. Indeed, from 1992-1999, Libya was literally cut off from the world: international flights to and from the country were banned. Meanwhile, GNP fell by more than a third; oil infrastructure rusted; and many Libyans grew up in a cocoon of Qaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.
Eventually, economic sanctions compelled Qaddafi to distance himself from international terror and to turn over Megrahi – as well as another suspect, Lamin Fhima, who was later acquitted – to face a Scottish tribunal at Camp Zeist in Holland. But there was never any conclusive evidence that Megrahi was involved in the Lockerbie bombing. In fact, most experts still believe that he was convicted using fraudulent evidence, and that the CIA bribed witnesses.
Furthermore, Libya formally accepted responsibility for the bombing, agreeing to pay more than $2 billion to victims’ families, and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program. Yet, despite Qaddafi’s hope for a warmer embrace from Western leaders (and a flood of investment), the relationship remained plagued by mutual suspicion and frequent backsliding.
Anger over Scotland’s decision in 2009 to release Megrahi, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, further poisoned Libya’s relations with the West. In Libyan diplomats’ eyes, Western countries had no right to chastise them; after all, they had paid reparations, and it was not their decision to release Megrahi. But skeptics claim that his release was intended to secure a favorable contract in Libya for British Petroleum, and Qaddafi’s erratic behavior, like declaring jihad against Switzerland in 2010, did little to build confidence.
If Megrahi was a powerful symbol of a century of mistrust between Libya and the West, his death can open the door to a new era of cooperation. In today’s Libya, French, American, and British flags abound, and young people dream of mastering a foreign language. Many members of the National Transitional Council were educated abroad and are eager for more Western capacity-building assistance. And Libya has officially requested that the UN monitor its elections next month.
But minor diplomatic breakdowns continue to threaten the relationship. To avoid reverting to old patterns, Western governments and companies must respect that there is a uniquely Libyan way of doing things, and understand that imposing Western norms simply will not work. At the same time, they should avoid grandstanding about Megrahi’s passing, and sensationalist Western media must not try to reinvigorate the controversy. Conversely, Libyans must stop seeing conspiracies behind every move in international diplomacy.
The Lockerbie tragedy is a dark chapter in Libya’s past, which all Libyans are eager to shake off. The West should let them.