- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Today trial begins for two Libyan intelligence agents, accused of the heinous murder of 270 innocent civilians in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103. At first glance, the prosecution's formal opening in a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands may seem like something to celebrate, a time for rhetoric about "the rule of law" in international affairs. We will certainly hear a good deal of that from the Clinton administration.

Unfortunately, however, the trial may actually mark the final collapse of U.S. efforts for a real vindication of Pan Am 103's victims. This collapse embodies both a failure of will to use military force to respond to a brutal attack on our citizens, and a self-imposed, potentially crippling limitation on even the narrow avenue of prosecution. While this erroneous approach started in the Bush administration, it has been refined and perfected by the Clinton State Department's assertive multilateralists. Equally repellent, we must simultaneously watch the spectacle of the administration's pell-mell rush to resume full diplomatic relations with Libya, as soon as it can elide the inconvenient indignation of the Pan Am 103 families and their congressional allies.

What is going on here? How have we allowed such a policy to develop to full maturity? Most importantly, what can be done now that trial is commencing at the specially prepared courtroom at Camp Zeist, a former U.S. base near Amsterdam?

First, 11-plus years after Pan Am 103's destruction and nine years since American and Scottish prosecutors indicted these two defendants, we are long past any realistic prospect of a proper military response. All we can do now is note our basic mistake in 1991-92 to judicialize this issue rather than to use force, in contrast with President Reagan's decision to launch air strikes against Libya for the 1986 "disco bombing" of U.S. servicemen in Germany. Although it sounds better to unleash hardheaded prosecutors rather than weak-kneed diplomats against terrorists, there is a better option still: cold steel.

Second, the United States was wrong from the outset to take the Pan Am 103 attack to the Security Council, and to cabin ourselves in United Nations processes. We were barely able to gain support for the initial condemnation of Libya or the imposition of sanctions, and we have been under continuous pressure since, largely from Europeans who would rather trade with Moammar Gadhafi than punish him for murder. Ironically, not even Col. Gadhafi is playing along with this charade. In an April 3 speech to the African-European summit in Cairo, he declared that "Africa is not a ping-pong ball to be hit once by Europe, once by the U.S.," and "we do not need democracy; we need water pumps."

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's unseemly haste for normalization with Libya embodies the State Department's typical deference to the European Union, combined with the Near East bureau's inevitable "clientitis" toward authoritarian regimes. Only the unlikely but powerful combination of Sens. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has slowed the effervescent secretary of state, through their resolution, recently adopted by the full Senate, opposing the rush toward normalization.

Third, Mrs. Albright, demonstrating she is no prosecutor, has made several critical mistakes in the handling of the trial itself. Initially, she conceded, without gaining anything in return, that the case would be tried under Scottish law, which does not provide for the death penalty for convicted murderers.

Then, and even worse, she and her diplomats acquiesced in a letter sent by Secretary General Kofi Annan to Col. Gadhafi, which essentially guaranteed Col. Gadhafi that he would not be linked to the murders at the trial. Thus, even if the two intelligence operatives are convicted, Col. Gadhafi will escape prosecution, even though he is widely believed to have given the direct order that led to Pan Am 103's destruction. Compounding this last blunder, Mrs. Albright has waged a full-scale war against the Pan Am 103 families, Rep. Ben Gilman, New York Republican, and other members of Congress, and numerous journalists who have been trying to obtain a copy of the Annan letter. This policy of compromising with Col. Gadhafi but stonewalling American family members has only increased concerns about what the Annan letter actually says.

Fourth, the Clinton administration has no clue what it will do if the Scottish judges at Camp Zeist acquit the Libyan defendants. This result is entirely possible, given the high standard of proof required for convictions, the lack of cooperation from the Libyan government, and the prosecutors' needs to shield sensitive intelligence sources and methods from exposure at trail. A finding of "not guilty" (or a so-called "Scottish verdict") is not the legal or moral equivalent of finding the defendants "innocent," but no one will recognize that distinction in the trail's aftermath. Col. Gadhafi and his fellow thugs will have beaten the rap, and Mrs. Albright can proceed toward diplomatic normalization unencumbered by any further obligation to the Pan Am 103 families.

Inexplicably, only a few members of Congress have even monitored, let alone opposed, the collapse of America's opposition to Libya's outrages. Nor has it been the subject of debate in the presidential campaign, at least until now. While the defendants on trial at Camp Zeist may ultimately be convicted, there is no prospect of adequate justice while Col. Gadhafi remains untouched. Since that seems sadly likely, we need a larger debate about how America asserts its interests and protects its citizens from attack, by terrorists or anyone else. This requires an American posture that accepts military force rather than prosecution as the preferred response, that is willing and even inclined to respond unilaterally to be effective, and that has an attention span long enough to allow us to win through to vindication. Questions of international terrorism and Libya particularly fully warrant presidential campaign debate.

John Bolton is senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

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