US and Libya: From Altercation to Intimacy

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mohammad Khajouei

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tripoli on Friday, Sept. 5 on a historic visit to Libya and held talks with Libyan officials, including Moamer Kadhafi.

This was the first visit to Libya by a US secretary of state since 1953.
Rice met Kadhafi at his residence in Tripoli, Bab al Azizia, which was hit in US bombing raids ordered by Reagan in 1986.

Kadhafi, wearing a white robe, did not shake hands with Rice but raised a hand to his chest in a traditional gesture of welcome. Then he shook hands with members of her staff.

During the meeting, the two sides discussed campaign against terrorism as well as cultural, commercial and political relations. They also signed an agreement on resumption of bilateral relations.

After the talks they shared an Iftar meal which breaks the fast during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Last year, Kadhafi proclaimed his love for "Leezza," telling Al-Jazeera television: "I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders… She’s a black woman of African origin."

Rice earlier described her brief visit -- the first to the oil-rich North African country by a US secretary of state in more than half a century -- as "historic" and a sign the United States does not have permanent foes.

"That is not to say that everything has by any means been settled between the United States and Libya. There is a long way to go," she told reporters traveling with her.

"But I do believe that it has demonstrated that the United States doesn't have permanent enemies. It demonstrates that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction the United States is prepared to respond. It is a beginning, it is an opening, it is not, I think, the end of the story," Rice said.

After meeting with Kadhafi, Rice attended a joint press conference with her Libyan counterpart, Abdelrahman Mohammed Shalgam, where she said the two countries had decided "to move forward in a positive way" and deal "as well as we can with issues of the past."

"After many, many years it is a good thing that the US and Libya found a way forward," she said, adding that this had become possible because Libya had made some "strategic choices."

"This is a good time for a constructive relationship between the US and Libya to emerge," the top US diplomat said.

Shalgam for his part said the world has changed and the very fact that Rice had made the groundbreaking visit to Libya and had held talks with Kadhafi was proof of this change. "The time of confrontation is over. There may still be differences of opinion but this will not endanger the relationship between (Libya and the US)," the minister added.

A glance at the history of relations between the United States and Libya will show that these relations have been full of ups and downs from the very beginning and the visit by Rice could mark a turning point in bilateral relations.

The last US secretary of state to visit was John Foster Dulles in May 1953, before Rice was even born. He met King Idris -- the ruler ousted in a bloodless military coup led in 1969 by Kadhafi, now the Arab world's longest serving leader. The good relations between the US and Libya was justified at that time as Washington was looking after the military bases of Libya. Discovery of crude oil in the late 1950s in Libya was another important factor in relations between the two countries at the time.  

But the rule of King Idris ended in 1969 and Kadhafi, the new revolutionary leader of Libya challenged relations with the US. One year after the Kadhafi-led coup, the American army withdrew from Libya and this was the beginning of the strained relations between the two countries which was further aggravated by criticisms voiced by the two sides. Ronald Reagan for instance called Kadhafi “a mad dog” and placed Libya in the list of countries sponsoring international terrorism. The US also accused Libya of being responsible for the deadly attack on a disco in Belrin in 1996 that killed three people and wounded 229. Most of the victims were American troops who frequented the disco. Two years later Libya was condemned for attacking a Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Most of the casualties were American citizens.

After the Berlin disco attack, the US tried to retaliate by launching military operations against Libya. But eventually, after the Lockerbie incident, Washington imposed extensive sanctions against Tripoli which was also supported by the European countries.

It can be said that a Libyan decision to hand over two suspects of terrorist operations to the United States marked a major shift in relations between the two countries. After the Iraqi war in 2003, major and eye-catching efforts were made by the US to improve relations with Libya. Being under UN sanctions for involvement in terrorist operations until then, Libya announced after the US invasion of Iraq that it would disclose all the information it had regarding weapons of mass destruction to the international authorities.

After that Libya agreed to pay compensation to victims of two terrorist operations. One was the bombing of a Pan Am Flight 747 en route from London to New York in 1988. Another was the bombing of a French passenger flight from Chad to Paris in 1989. Some 400 people were killed in the two bombings.

In response, the US administration lifted all economic and political sanctions against Libya but arms sanctions remained in force. American companies also began new investments in Libya on the grounds that the country possessed one of the largest crude oil reserves in Africa.

Eventually, in 2006 the US and Libya agreed to upgrade diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level. The two sides also signed an agreement on August 14 this year according to which they would pay in compensation for the actions they have taken against each other. Libya agreed to pay full compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie and Berlin disco bombings. The US too accepted to pay compensation for the victims of the 1986 air raids on Tripoli and another Libyan city.

Despite some differences of views between the leaders of Libya and the US regarding the questions of human rights and the Middle East peace plan, it seems that relations between Washington and Tripoli will further expand in the future. This is mainly because of the strong desire voiced by the Libyan leaders to reduce the tension with the US over the past few years on the one hand, and the enthusiasm shown by Washington to develop relations with Tripoli and pretend that its policies in the so-called taming of defiant players in the international system have proved a success.

What made Rice to visit Libya and prompted the Libyan leaders’ enthusiasm was one thing: common interests of the two countries at this juncture of time. But whether the behavior of Libya over the past few years would damage the image of the country among Muslim states and whether the US would remain a faithful friend of Libya are questions which the passage of time would answer for!

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