Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

“The King of Kings”

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on August 23, 2009
Is the United States looking for a better relationship with Muammar Kaddafi's Libya?

Is the United States looking for a better relationship with Muammar Kaddafi's Libya?

While tenuous at best, diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya was virtually nonexistent after Muammar Kaddafi emerged as Tripoli’s supreme political authority in September 1969.  Kaddafi’s belligerent rhetoric towards the west in general, as well as his connections and support for international terrorism, all but transformed his image and credibility as a man who was extremely dangerous to world peace and security.  Libya’s apparent ties to the Pan Am Flight 103 tragedy over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 only cemented Kaddafi’s “evil” persona in the eyes of Washington:  a conclusion that Democratic and Republican presidents over the last 40 years could actually agree upon in the all-to-normal atmosphere of D.C. partisanship.  After September 11, 2001, the United States became even more concerned about Kaddafi’s aggressive tendencies in Northern Africa…fueled in large part on evidence that Tripoli had acquired a sophisticated and extensive chemical and nuclear-weapons program that posed a gathering threat to Europe and Sub-Sahara Africa.

Yet, despite the bad blood that has existed between the two countries for close to a half-century, Libyans and Americans are slowly implementing positive steps towards reconciliation.  The dramatic transformation occurred in 2003, when President George W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, convinced Mr. Kaddafi to eliminate his weapons facilities.  In reciprocation, the United States rewarded Libya for its agreement to disarm its weapons facilities, lifting a set of economic sanctions that were all but crippling Libya’s national economy.  Kaddafi’s isolation eventually dwindled as well, allowing Tripoli to engage in talks with the west that were all but absent in his first 35 years of rule…topics dealing extensively with terrorism, security, and the domestic stability of African nations.  With the termination of George Bush’s presidency and with the introduction of a new American administration, “the policy of closer ties is continuing:” an assertion that was publicly confirmed when President Obama shook the Libyan leader’s hand in front of the camera’s during last month’s G-8 Summit.

Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between two countries that were historically hostile to each other’s motives?  According to some analysts in the Washington D.C. area, this question has already been answered…with a U.S. and Libyan military relationship evolving, and with a former pro-Libyan business executive (David Goldwyn) appointed as the coordinator of energy affairs for the U.S. State Department, improved dialogue between the two is more than possible.  In fact, rumors are even circulating that Washington is willing to sell Tripoli light weapons for its fight against Islamic extremism in North Africa:  a declaration confirmed when Jeffrey Feltman (acting assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs) endorsed the notion of a “strengthened” military cooperation.  Could anyone have imagined such assistance taking place six years earlier, when the Bush administration labeled Libya as one of the world’s leading state-sponsors of terrorism?

However significant all of these changes are to the U.S.-Libyan relationship, this American rapprochement has more to do with Kaddafi’s stance as an African leader than a genuine partner in the War on Terrorism.  While it is true that Kaddafi’s rein may be weakening after 40 years in power, the “king of all kings” continues to strengthen his hand in the affairs of the African continent…recently becoming the African Union’s most powerful member.  His electoral ascendance to the AU chairmanship, a tremendous political comeback for a man who is routinely chastised by European powers, shows the extent of his influence in some of the world’s poorest societies.  Sure, the United States and Europe may view Kaddafi as a jokester who dresses in funny and exotic capes, but Africans increasingly look up to him as someone who will stand up to the forces of western imperialism.  Kaddafi’s consistent call for a “United States of Africa,” in addition to his vow of uniting Africans of all religions, tribes, ethnicities, and backgrounds gives the aging leader a sense of credibility on the world stage; even if others do not like it.

Bearing in mind that President Obama recently took a 7-nation tour of Africa in the hopes of promoting his agenda for the region, the disease-ravaged continent seems especially vital for his overall legacy.  If this is so, sidestepping Kaddafi’s presence is certainly not an option.  This would essentially be the same as bypassing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin when dealing with issues pertaining to the Kremlin…a move that would be both foolish and wasteful.  For this reason, and this reason only, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have no choice but to appease Africa’s most respective dignitary.  Portraying Washington’s cooperation with Tripoli solely on security or economic terms is only an attempt to sugarcoat reality.  Who would have thought that a former supporter of terrorism would get the last laugh against the world’s only remaining superpower?

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and information from the BBC contributed to this blog.

-Isikoff’s full article can be accessed at: http://www.newsweek.com/id/212128

-The BBC news headline can be accessed at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7864604.stm

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