WASHINGTON — The idea that Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi last March saw American forces invading Iraq and decided "the jig was up" for Libya is attractive in its simplicity. But the events that led to the surprise declaration on Dec. 19 that Libya would scrap its own weapons programs are more complicated and stretch out over a longer period.
Libya and the United States have been in an unannounced state of conflict since 1981, when American jets shot down two Libyan planes over disputed waters. Qaddafi retaliated with terrorist attacks in Rome and Vienna. The US embargoed Libyan commerce. In 1986, President Reagan ordered the bombing of Qaddafi's compound, killing 37 persons, in reprisal for the bombing of a West Berlin cafe in which two American GIs were killed. In 1988, the back-and-forth violence reached its climax with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, killing 270 on board.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world began to look different. Qaddafi started putting out conciliatory feelers. He surrendered two Libyan agents for trial for their role in the bombing. He eventually agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation for families of Pan Am victims.
By the late '90s, a full-scale peace offensive was under way. In an interview with author Milton Viorst for Foreign Affairs magazine, the Libyan dictator said of terrorism, "All of these things are of the past, an era that is over." After the Sept. 11 attacks, Qaddafi made a speech expressing sympathy for America, and stressing the need to "eliminate the common dangers of international extremism and terrorism." Libya volunteered antiterrorist intelligence support.
But Libya's rehabilitation and the lifting of sanctions finally came down to the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Libya at first said it didn't have any, neglecting to say it had nuclear and chemical programs under way. The breakthrough came in secret meetings with British and American intelligence officers when Libya was challenged to allow unconditional inspection, and, after some tense exchanges, finally agreed.
Libya itself hastened to make the announcement, leaving it to President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to follow with their statements of pleasure.
Colonel Qaddafi, often called eccentric, had perceived the way the wind was blowing in a post-cold-war world. If only Saddam Hussein had.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.