Diplomatic relations with Libya move from rhetoric to realism


The restoration of U.S. diplomatic relations with Libya, while it no doubt will raise questions and unpleasant memories, is welcome, signaling a desire for normalization on both sides. If it also represents a shift toward realism over rhetoric in U.S. foreign policy it will be even more welcome.

One should not downplay or forget the despicable behavior of Libya’s dictator, Col. Muammar el-Gadhafi, toward Libyans and the world. After seizing power in 1969 in a country with significant oil reserves, he renounced agreements and berated the United States, leading to the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador in 1972. For a while Gadhafi envisioned himself as an international revolutionary leader, sponsoring coups, invasions, assassination attempts and terrorist acts across the world.

The U.S. cut off relations in 1979. Libyans were responsible for a bombing in a German disco in 1986 that killed several Americans, leading to a U.S. bombing mission on Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyan agents bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, most of them Americans. Meanwhile, the Libyan people have suffered the abductions and tortures that so often accompany a police state.

In 2003, however, Gadhafi announced that Libya would end its nuclear weapons program and allow U.S. and British inspectors in to check. Libya has not been an active sponsor of terrorism for some time, which the U.S. State Department acknowledged this month.

The administration has attributed this turnabout to the U.S. invasion of Iraq getting Gadhafi’s attention. There may be some truth to this, but Libya had been seeking to get back in America’s good graces (or at least off the embargo list) since the early 1990s, and talks had been ongoing, sometimes through British or other back channels, since the middle 1990s. Gadhafi apparently decided that being seen as a “rogue” state was increasingly undesirable in a globalizing world, and having a nuclear weapon would bring more headaches than real power.

It took a long time for the United States to take this seriously and stipulate the price for normalization — $8 million for the family of each Lockerbie victim and other concessions. This week the decision was simply formalized.

In a way, this decision puts the lie to U.S. talk about promoting and rewarding democracy and freedom in other countries. Gadhafi is still a thoroughly nasty dictator who plans to pass power to his son.

However, most rulers in most countries, whether democratically chosen or not, have a broad nasty streak. The important question is whether other countries pose a genuine threat to the United States. Gadhafi did — though not as much as he or we pretended — and now he doesn’t.
American leaders have an adolescent tendency to demonize foreign leaders who displease us at a given moment. A more mature approach would see diplomatic recognition as simply that — recognition — rather than using it to reward or punish other countries. That would allow closer monitoring of regimes that might eventually pose a real threat, and more effective means of influencing behavior than simply threatening to take our recognition and go home.

If diplomatic relations with Libya suggest an era of seeing and dealing with the world based on realistic assessments of threats rather than moral posturing, that would be progress.