Rice in Libya: A Rare Mideast Success

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Mahmud Turkia / AFP / Getty

Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, right, poses with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prior to a meeting in Tripoli.

There haven't been too many opportunities to say this, but the Bush Administration scored an unqualified success in the Middle East on Friday. In the highest-level U.S. visit to Libya since John Foster Dulles held talks with King Idris Senussi in 1953, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice arrived in Tripoli and met with the country's revolutionary leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The talks mark the final step in a remarkable rapprochement that offers an example of how violent disputes in the troubled region can be settled through diplomacy rather than war.

It's fair to say that for an earlier generation of U.S. officials, Gaddafi was the Saddam Hussein of their Middle East. He was an Arab leader who supported terrorist groups, sought weapons of mass destruction, and thumbed his nose at the Washington. President Reagan dubbed Gaddafi the "mad dog of the Middle East" and cut relations with Libya in response to Gaddafi's involvement in terrorism. After Libyans bombed a Berlin disco in 1986 killing two U.S. servicemen, Reagan ordered an air attack on Tripoli with the apparent aim of taking out Gaddafi. The bombing raid on the Libyan leader's residence — the very same location where he hosted Rice on Friday evening — killed his adopted daughter. Two years later, in what some observers viewed as a revenge attack, Libyan officials were involved in the mid-flight bombing of a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, that killed 270 people.

I went to Libya after the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986, but Gaddafi's handlers wouldn't let the foreign press anywhere near him. We were told he'd give a public speech in the main square in Tripoli, but he ended up just doing it on Libyan television. He was so haggard that his appearance gave the impression that he had been drugged. Exactly 20 years later, after the resumption of relations with the U.S. was well under way, I returned to Libya and was quickly ushered into Gaddafi's tent. He spent much of our interview wanting to discuss the Internet. Last year, the U.S. sent an ambassador to Tripoli for the first time in three decades.

How did this unlikely, extraordinary rapprochement come about? A combination of factors played a role, including international sanctions, the fall of the Soviet Union, a realignment of Arab politics and, perhaps, the Bush administration's saber-rattling against Middle East despots. Gaddafi became convinced that he needed to end his hostility to the U.S. and, to its great credit, the Bush Administration reciprocated Libya's olive branch, initially extended by Gaddafi's son, Seif, in a secret meeting at a London hotel room with agents of Britain's secret service, MI6.

Gaddafi's rehabilitation is an emotional blow to the families of Libya's terrorism victims: The large financial settlements with which they are being provided can't compensate for the irreparable loss of their loved ones. If Libya's change of direction is to become complete, Gaddafi would have to broaden political participation and end human rights abuses in his own country. An important start would be the release of Libya's top dissident, Fathi El-Jahmi, who has been imprisoned since 2004 after calling on Gaddafi to allow free speech and pursue political reform. But in a speech on Libya's national day this week, Gaddafi indicated that he would continue to follow his own agenda, not Washington's. "We do not have an interest in being hostile to a country like America but we do not accept to be subservient to America," he said.

Still, a good deal has been accomplished toward reintegrating Libya as a responsible member of the international community, and that in itself could push the regime toward better behavior at home. Libya has forsworn support for terrorism and provided the West with intelligence on terrorist groups, and it has given up its nuclear weapons program. In addition, Libya is already working side by side with the U.S. diplomatically on problems such as the strife in Darfur and Chad. With the two countries on the verge of signing a trade and investment agreement, money is beginning to pour into Libya's energy and construction sectors. More young Libyans will soon be studying in the U.S.

"This, for the United States is, I would say, a success in our foreign policy," says David Welch, Rice's assistant for the region. For a Bush administration prone to falsely trumpeting achievements in the Middle East, that's a diplomatic understatement.