Libya's Evolution

President Bush and Libya leader Moammar Gadhafi over flags of US and Libya AP / CBS

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News who now covers the State Department.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Libya has been in the planning stages for some time and, speaking to reporters as they flew into Tripoli, she called it "historic." "Quite frankly," she said, "I never thought I'd be visiting Libya." Rice's visit is the culmination of a diplomatic effort which began before President George W. Bush took office. As for U.S.-Libyan relations Rice said, "It's a beginning. It is an opening. It's not, I think, the end of the story." Either way it stands as a diplomatic achievement for Mr. Bush, his secretary of state and her diplomatic team.

Col. Moammar Gadhafi's Libya has been seen by American policymakers for decades as one of the really bad actors in international politics. Libya was behind the 1988 Pan Am 103 attack which killed 290 and it also was responsible for the 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing which resulted in the loss of American lives. Gadhafi had a weapons-of-mass-destruction program which caused concern and Libya was a place which harbored terrorists. Gadhafi's government was sanctioned by Congress and the United Nations.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, the Libyan leader decided some years ago to shift course. The State Department's Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, Dell Dailey, said: "I think he spent enough time kind of on the outside of the international society and realized that turning around his nuclear program, and also soliciting to be taken off the state sponsor (of terrorism) list, would be an advantage to him to reintegrate into the international community."

It has been quite a turnaround, especially since 2003, when Libya accepted responsibility for the actions of its officials in the Pan Am 103 case. The following year Tripoli got out of the WMD business by turning over to the U. S. design documents, centrifuge components and other materials related to its programs. Washington and Tripoli resumed low level diplomatic ties in 2004 and last year Mr. Bush nominated an ambassador to head the American embassy in Tripoli. Libya was officially taken off the state sponsor of terrorism list in 2006 and, says Dell Dailey, "there's been some very close cooperation in virtually all the areas of counter terrorism."

Assistant Secretary of State David Welch says "we can see the path toward a much more normal relationship" with Libya. The last key piece of business to be finished before Rice decided it was time for her to meet with Gadhafi was the establishment of a mechanism which will settle claims by both American and Libyan victims for actions over the past several decades. Not only will Pan Am 103 victims' families receive final installment of payments they feel are due, Libyan families who lost loved ones when the U.S. launched a missile attack on Tripoli following the La Belle bombing will have a way to settle outstanding claims against the U.S.

Yes, there are skeptics about just how much Gadhafi can be trusted. Welch, who led the team which brokered the compensation claims agreement, said of the complex negotiations: "In my business, I'm prone to trust people, but I also demand to verify things. Sometimes verification takes a while." In fact, as of the time Rice landed in Tripoli, the Libyans had not put any money into the claims settlement fund.

Would the Libyan model work elsewhere? Specifically, is this path one which either North Korea or Iran could follow? Welch says: "It's very useful to be able to say, look, if you made a different choice, there is a path forward here, you can get out of this box if you behave responsibly."

Reflecting Rice's own views, Assistant Secretary for Verification and Compliance Paula DeSutter said of the Libyans abandoning their WMD programs: "It's true we'd like to build on it. It demonstrated that even when there is a country whose leadership we've had very difficult challenges with over a long period of time-if that country changes critical behavior that you have a terrible problem with-in this case terrorism and WMD acquisition-that change in regime behavior can move-remove the necessity for calling for regime changes other administrations have done."

Secretary Rice told reporters, "I do believe that this demonstrates that the United States doesn't have permanent enemies."

Clearly the leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran have watched Tripoli and Washington close the gaps on their once significant differences. But North Korea's nuclear program was far more advanced than Libya's and although it has shown a willingness to negotiate an end to its programs, it has also exhibited an ability to stall at every turn and has so far not yet convinced the administration it has truly made the strategic choice to give up its nuclear ambitions. Iran may one day take Libya's path but there is no sign of that from recent negotiations.

Rice's meeting with Libya's leader marks the first visit of a secretary of state to Libya since John Foster Dulles went in 1953! That is an astonishing period of time for America's senior diplomat to be a no show in any foreign capital and it raises the question of whether similar trips to Pyongyang and Tehran would make outstanding problems easier to solve than they proved to be with Tripoli.

  • Charles Wolfson

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