When Sarkozy Met Gaddafi

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) chats with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Despite his return to the international fold following his 2003 repudiation of state terrorism and of efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi hasn't been the kind of statesman Western leaders have wanted to honor in their capitals — until now. Despite his continued disdain for democracy and notoriously poor record on human rights, Gaddafi is being hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a lavish five-day stay featuring not one but two meetings with Sarkozy. Supporters of the trip argue it offers Gaddafi evidence of the diplomatic respect awaiting him should he match his improved international behavior with similarly improved treatment of his own people. Detractors point to Gaddafi's comments over the weekend that "it's normal the weak have recourse to terrorism" in international conflicts as additional proof the Libyan has a long way to go before receiving a tribute from the French Republic.

"Colonel Gaddafi must realize our country isn't a doormat upon which a leader, whether terrorist or not, can come to wipe off the blood of his crimes," fumed Rama Yade, the secretary of state for foreign affairs and human rights in Sarkozy's own government, to the daily Le Parisien. Yade noted the Libyan regime's maintenance of police state to repress suspected political opposition left her decidedly "not happy about this visit" — one that begins, she pointed out "on International Human Rights Day". She wasn't the only one to protest Sarkozy's decision to host Gaddafi's first trip to France in 34 years. Former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal called it "odious, shocking, and even inadmissible", and accused the President of "stomping on traditional French defense of human rights". Royal's centrist rival in the election, François Bayrou, termed the visit "unworthy of France, and unworthy for France." Even French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner could muster little more enthusiasm than to say, "I am resigned to hosting him. It was necessary".

Why necessary? For starters, because of Gaddafi's central role in Sarkozy's most dramatic diplomatic coup in his six-month presidency: the success last July in winning the release of six Bulgarian medics held on trumped-up murder charges by Tripoli. All that left even some Sarkozy allies inclined to interpret Gaddafi's visit at least in part as a quid pro quo. "The Bulgarian medics were certainly worth a visit," argued former conservative French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

What's more, Gadaffi is expected to finalize over $4.5 billion in business agreements above those worth $10 billion signed last summer. Still, Sarkozy insists his invitation goes beyond mere contracts. Instead, his aids say it represents Sarkozy's "realpolitik" of engaging and encouraging rogue regimes in places such as Iran, Syria and Libya to start acting more responsibly in exchange for greater respect within the international community. "If we don't embrace nations who take the road toward respectability, what do we say to those who take that road in the opposite direction?" asked Sarkozy in Lisbon. Other leaders seem to agree. Last May, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed "completely transformed" relations between London and Tripoli, the "very strong cooperation on counter-terrorism and defense" — and, not incidentally, greater business opportunities for British companies seeking work on the largest oil reserves in Africa, which Libya houses. Similar trips by German and American officials to discuss strategic and business cooperation with the Libyan regime have been regular occurrences over the past three years.

But the Paris visit marks the first time a Western head of state has hosted Gaddafi as an honored guest of his nation — a particularly big p.r. coup for the Libyan, given Sarkozy's repeated vows to make human rights central in defining French foreign policy. Opposition politicians and human rights groups like Amnesty International want to hold Sarkozy to that promise by insisting Gaddafi's better diplomatic behavior be accompanied by improved treatment of his own people before he's shown such deferential treatment. Critics also contend Gaddafi isn't the only suspect foreign leader Sarkozy has offered such friendly approbation to. Earlier this month, for instance, Sarkozy placed what media reports have described as "a warm telephone call" to Russia's authoritarian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on victorious parliamentary elections that many observers describe as tainted by fraud. No other European leader followed his example. It's doubtful they'll be picking up their phones to place a call to Gaddafi either.