TCS Daily

The "Mad Dog of Tripoli" Barks

By Jacob Laksin - May 4, 2004 12:00 AM

For a man increasingly hailed as an enlightened despot, Muammar Qaddafi was severely lacking in the former. Making his first appearance in Brussels last week, after 15 years of continental cold shouldering, Qaddafi came with a mission: To shatter hopes that his decision to surrender Libya's WMD programs and allow unconditional inspections had stirred a deeper transformation. That much was unnervingly apparent as Qaddafi uncorked a stream of condemnation he plainly had been bottling for some time.

Flanked by a detail of lovely (and reportedly lethal) female bodyguards and swathed in one of his signature billowing robes, Qaddafi launched into a 45-minute diatribe that swung from the blustery to the downright menacing, hitting successive notes of provocative throughout. Lashing out at the U.S. friendship with Israel, Qaddafi then lectured Europe about its human rights history. For good measure, he even inveighed against the U.S. efforts in Iraq. And he was just getting warmed up.

Conveniently glossing over his well-documented dalliances with terrorism -- among them Libya's provision of training, weapons, funding, safe haven, and other support to a gruesome gallery that includes Palestinian and Philippine terrorist groups, the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatists ETA, and Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front -- Qaddafi, in true dramatic form, chafed at Libya's reputation as an oasis of terrorism. In Qaddafi's telling, Libya merely "did its duty" over the years by aiding "liberation movements." For such humanitarianism, he grumbled, Libya was "unjustly accused of terrorism." Visibly cherishing the global spotlight, and finding his rambling uncontested, the Colonel then went for broke.

Strongly suggesting that his desistance from terrorism was conditional, Qaddafi delivered a not-so-thinly veiled threat. "I hope that we shall not be prompted or obliged by any evil to go back or to look backwards," he noted. Never given to a surfeit of subtlety, Qaddafi pressed his point. "We do hope that we shall not be obliged or forced one day to go back to those days when we bombed our cars or put explosive belts around our beds and around our women so that we will not be searched and not be harassed in our bedrooms and in our homes, as it is taking place now in Iraq and in Palestine." (Interestingly, the corresponding New York Times article, which neglected to excerpt these remarks, was titled "Libyan Leader, in Europe, Makes His Case for Peace.")

Reading those words, even optimists may be forgiven for wondering whether the man Ronald Reagan famously dubbed the "Mad Dog of Tripoli" can ever be taught new tricks. Something similar must have occurred to European Commission president Romano Prodi. Not heeding Tocqueville's warning about unreasonably expanding the scope of human perfectibility, he squirmed by Qaddafi's side. Was this the same Qaddafi whose willingness to bow to the Bush administration's demands to disarm recently earned him such effusive praise? Who was held up as a poster brute of democratic revelation?

Indeed it was. How, then, to explain the slide into recidivism? The U.S. decision to lift sanctions against Libya is a good place to start. When the Bush administration decided, just over a week ago, to relieve Libya of the sanctions imposed under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and the International Economic Emergency Powers Act, it was properly rewarding Libyan good behavior in coming clean about its weapons' programs; but the fanfare marking Libya's entrance into the international community has made scant mention of the country's troubling domestic realities.

Last week, for instance, it was left up to Amnesty International to remind the world that Libya remains a serial abuser of human rights, smothering freedom of speech and silencing -- sometimes permanently -- political dissent. Small wonder that Qaddafi felt bold enough to question the human rights record of democratic countries and invoke terrorist threats: He seems to believe Libya has weathered the worst of the West's criticism.

The issue here is more serious than Qaddafi's insuperable ego. By pretending that he has reaped the full economic benefits of the West while ducking serious reform, Qaddafi confirms the belief, shared by the gang of dictators who hold a monopoly on power in the Arab world, that the commitment of democratic countries to reform is, at bottom, superficial. By playing up his terrorist bona fides, meanwhile, Qaddafi gives credence to the Middle Eastern shibboleth that the West will embrace repressive regimes even if they cling to their support for terrorism. Casting the unreconstructed Qaddafi as a model of reform thus betrays the Bush administration's eminently admirable vision of regional change.

And yet condemnation from Washington was conspicuously unforthcoming last week. The reason, it appears, is that U.S. officials are wary of alienating Libya at a time when it is reportedly on the mend. Not to be discounted is the possibility of electoral concerns: The Bush administration rightly considers Libya's decision to relinquish weapons programs as evidence that its muscular approach to the Middle East is getting results. Understandably wary of impeding Libyan reform, U.S. officials nonetheless should resist the temptation to let Qaddafi's remarks go unchallenged. And despite what their silence suggests, options for dealing with Libya are not nearly as scarce as officials seem to believe.

Take foreign investment. Fathi ben Shatwan, head of the Libya's energy ministry, has reported that Libya will need some $30 billion of investment in the next decade. That means the country is banking on steady business from foreign companies. In fact, Libya got its first taste of the possibilities in March, when Royal Dutch-Shell signed a preliminary agreement that could mean a $200 million initial investment in gas exploration. It should be noted that the deal owed much to the influence of Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, who helped along negotiations during a visit to Tripoli. What Qaddafi has forgotten in his moralizing vigor, is that leaders like Blair can, and perhaps should, use their influence to discourage investment.

Taking a cue from Qaddafi, the United States should also consider exercising its right to intransigence. Qaddafi's threats about resuming his connections to terrorism, laden as they are with braggadocio, make a convincing argument for keeping in place export controls. Currently under review, these controls, which bar shipments of arms as well as so-called "dual use" items, which can have both a civilian and military use, should be kept firmly in place.

Lastly, Libya expects the State Department to remove its name from the infamous list of terrorism-sponsoring states. A scarlet letter that sours investors from pursuing investment opportunities, Libya considers its exit from the list vital. Just last week, Libyan foreign minister Abdul Rahman Shalqam urged Libya's prompt removal. But if Qaddafi continues to posture as a latent terrorist, that cannot be an option. Colin Powell has already indicated that Libya is likely to stay on the list, noting that the date scheduled for the decision will be a "cautious date." If the administration wants to signal its commitment to prosecuting terror, it should follow though by letting Libya hang on to its deserved distinction a while longer.

In short, Qaddafi must be made to understand that he is not the only one capable of changing his mind. More vocal support for Libyan reform would be a welcome sign. Similarly, a more critical response from Washington to Qaddafi's oratorical excretions would indicate that the U.S. will not be bullied by dictators. Membership in the international community, it must be made clear, comes with new responsibility; it is not, as Qaddafi seems to believe, simply a bigger venue for his self-aggrandizing act. By stressing that only countries that undertake genuine reform and disown their terrorist ties will be allowed into the international stage, the West, and Europe in particular, can make the point it has long failed to make: That Arab dictators are dealing with a tough crowd.

Jakob Laksin is a writer living in New York. This is his first contribution to TCS.


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