Obama Becomes First President to Greet Qadhafi

(AP Photo)
It was more handshake diplomacy by President Obama as he became the first US president to exchange a face-to-face greeting with Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi.

As Chairman of the African Union, Qadhafi was invited to attend the G8 Summit Leaders dinner tonight in L'Aquila, Italy.

As the chiefs of state and heads of government gathered for a class photo, Qadhafi approached President Obama and they shook hands. It was a polite encounter, conducted according to protocol. Qadhafi smiled, Mr. Obama not so much.

Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan would sooner have cut off his arm than shake hands with Qadhafi.

"We do not underestimate the brutality of this evil man," said Mr. Reagan of the Libyan leader in 1986, who was deemed by the U.S. to be world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism.

President Reagan regarded Qadhafi as a "madman," a ruler of an "outlaw regime," and "an enemy of the United States."

Qadhafi took power in a 1969 coup, after which U.S. relations with the North African nation became increasingly strained to the point of military action.

In 1986, Mr. Reagan ordered air strikes on military targets in Libya after evidence linking it to a bombing incident in Berlin which claimed the lives of two American servicemen.

(AP Photo)
"Long before I came into this office, Colonel Qadhafi had engaged in acts of international terror, acts that put him outside the company of civilized men, " said Mr. Reagan in an address to the nation on April 14, 1986.

Libya was also implicated in the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 which claimed the lives of 270 people.

But now, 21 years later, the U.S. and Libya enjoy normal diplomatic relations. In January of this year, the two countries exchanged ambassadors for the first time since 1973.

A sea change in Qadhafi's behavior and zealous anti-American policies took place six years ago when Libya announced it would rid itself of weapons of mass destruction. It cooperated in this effort with the U.S., Britain and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In exchange, the U.S. began normalizing relations with Libya by ending trade sanctions, unfreezing assets and opening a diplomatic office in Tripoli. It was upgraded to a full embassy in May 2006.

And tonight in Italy, Qadhafi shook hands with the American president and sat just two seats away from him at dinner. In between them was the summit host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In the litany of controversial handshakes, tonight's encounter with Qadhafi follows President Obama's exchanges in April with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. No fist-bumps on that list just yet.

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.