Should the U.S. Demand Extradition of Lockerbie Bomber from Libya?

Mitt Romney thinks so, but it would carry significant risks at a sensitive time in U.S.-Libya relations

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Saif Qaddafi, right, escorts Megrahi on his return to Libya / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called on the government of post-Qaddafi Libya to extradite the man convicted of bombing a civilian airliner over Scotland. The 1988 incident that killed 270 people -- and the welfare of the man responsible, who was allegedly working at the behest of Muammar Qaddafi -- have been at the center of Libya's tense relationship with the West for decades. But is Romney's demand -- quickly echoed by Democratic Senator Bob Menendez -- a good idea?

"The world is about to be rid of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brutal tyrant who terrorized the Libyan people. It is my hope that Libya will now move toward a representative form of government that supports freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. As a first step, I call on this new government to arrest and extradite the mastermind behind the bombing of Pan Am 103, Abdelbaset Mohmed Ali al-Megrahi, so justice can finally be done," Romney's statement read.

Megrahi, known in the West as the Lockerbie bomber, was released to Libya by Scottish authorities in 2009 on what was described as "compassionate" grounds -- he had reportedly been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had three months to live. He was ferried back home by none other than Saif Qaddafi, the regime heir apparent who has since come under an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. Two years later, he is still believed to be alive and well in Tripoli. Last month, Libyan state TV showed him attending a pro-Qaddafi rally.

It's easy to see, then, why Romney and others could feel that Megrahi's freedom could look like an outrageous affront to justice that must be immediately corrected. (It also provides him with a way to shift the American conversation a step away from the apparently successful intervention championed in part by President Barack Obama, Romney's potential rival in the 2012 presidential election.) But the Lockerbie case is more complicated than it might initially appear, and dredging up Megrahi's case at this moment carries some risks.

First, the case itself is not exactly closed. Megrahi's release by the Scottish government was part of a deal for the Libyan man to drop his appeal of the case. Families of some victims have expressed doubt he was really involved, independent media investigations have discovered a number of holes in the case against him, and as the New York Times put it upon his 2009 release, "those doubts existed outside the murky precincts of the Internet where wild conspiracy theories are spun out." The Wall Street Journal later reported that Megrahi's doctors did not actually believe his condition was terminal. British authorities, long critical of his release, do not appear to have consider the Lockerbie investigation resolved: when Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa recently defected, they made questioning him about the 1988 bombing a top priority.

Uncovering the truth of the bombing -- and of Megrahi's case -- would probably not be served by creating a high-profile international fuss for his extradition. If his conviction turns out to be false, as some observers believe, pushing for his extradition could harm the U.S. image in Libya and beyond at a time when American diplomats are struggling to court increasingly activist (and increasingly suspicious) Arab publics. For this same reason, if Megrahi is indeed guilty -- as he may well be -- perhaps better for this decision to be reached by the courts of post-Qaddafi Libya, rather than imposed from an outside power that has not always been popular among Libyans.

There is also an uncomfortable truth about Megrahi: he's not as widely loathed in Libya as he is in the West, and his return was met with some celebration. That's not because the Libyan people want to cheer a terrorist, of course; it's a bit more complicated. The regime, for all its unpopularity, had managed to portray Megrahi's Scotland trial as yet another example of brutal Western oppression, mistreatment, and humiliation of Libyans. That message can resonate in any country that was recently a European colony; the Italian occupation, which at times looked like an outright genocide of Bedouins, was not so long ago, and has left many Libyans understandably wary of Western interference. That sentiment has been reinforced a number of times, more recently with the waves of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism that Qaddafi rode to power.

Megrahi's trial became, in many ways, a symbol of these same fears; his return in the hands of Saif Qaddafi was, for some, a joyful renunciation of the most despised Western practices. While many Libyans have shown a more pro-Western turn of late, with grateful rebels snatching up French and American flags to wave at rallies, demanding his return could risk resurfacing old anxieties about the West and reinforcing Libyans' more negative perceptions of how Western nations treat Libya.

But it's the potential diplomatic repercussions of U.S. calls for Megrahi's extradition that could pose the greatest risk. Post-Qaddafi Libya has not even yet formed a transitional government, much less a permanent one. Do we really want the first-ever meeting between American and free Libyan officials to be one in which the U.S. makes demands -- potentially difficult demands -- of a Libyan government it is also trying to court? "Give us what we want because we demand it" is never particularly good or effective diplomacy. An adversarial stance is particularly risky toward a country that will soon face a difficult decision over whether or not to build a positive relationship with the Western nations that have so long been enemies of the Libyan government. Bringing this to the forefront of the U.S.-Libya relationship seems to guarantee that this relationship will introduce awkwardness and antagonism at a time when we are trying to prove, as the airstrikes demonstrated, that the U.S. is an ally of the Libyan people.

Bringing justice to the awful 1988 Lockerbie bombing would be, without question, of great and long overdue importance. But should that really come at the risk of complicating Libya's relationship with the West, which could finally normalize after four decades of hostility and mistrust? Is it really worth sacrificing this moment -- which has come at such great cost to so many -- of starting anew? If anything, it is by building a positive and productive long-term relationship with the new Libyan government that the world can best secure its cooperation on Megrahi, whatever his fate.