By Gabriel Hershman
THE UNITED States has restored full diplomatic ties with Libya, marking an astounding turnaround in relations since Washington severed links in 1981. American-Libyan relations have come a long way since their lowest ebb, 20 years ago, when President Ronald Reagan bombed Tripoli, in response to the attack on a Berlin nightclub in which 40 American citizens died.
Since seizing power in a military coup in 1969, Colonel Muammar al-Gadaffi had been a constant thorn in the side of the West. The list of crimes is legion: Gadaffi sent troops to help ailing dictator, Idi Amin, when Tanzania invaded Uganda in 1979, ordered the assassination of Libyan dissidents living abroad and supported any leader opposed to America. Gaddafi also expelled American oil firms that had invested in the country and banned American military vessels from Libyan waters.
Rogue state supported terrorism
Throughout the 80s, Libya was regarded as a rogue state, supporting terrorist groups such as the IRA in Britain and extremist Palestinian groups. Tripoli seemed to welcome any kind of subversive activity opposed to the Western establishment. Gadaffi even hosted the current leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, something that must embarrass Griffin in the light of his current anti-Islamic rhetoric.
Relations with Britain plummeted in 1984 when staff, firing from within the Libyan embassy in London, murdered WPC Yvonne Fletcher. Most infamously, Libyan suspects blew up a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, an outrage that prompted the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya and demand that Gadaffi hand over the suspects.
When he appeared on television, Gadaffi seemed eccentric and absent-minded, fuelling rumours about his health. Interviewed by Peter Snow on Newsnight in 1991, Gadaffi appealed for “Arab unity” – a union of Arab countries in a confederated system of states, an appeal that his Middle East neighbours ignored. Significantly, in the same interview, he condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This was perhaps the earliest signal of an attempted rapprochement with the West.
By the late 90s, relations were improving. In April 1999, Gadaffi handed over two suspects accused of planting the Lockerbie bomb. One of the two Libyan agents was tried and convicted for the bombing by a Scottish court. His co-accused was set free.
Libya also said it accepted legal responsibility for the Lockerbie attack and agreed to pay 2.7 billion dollars in compensation to the victims’ families. The United Nations responded by lifting sanctions against Tripoli. In 2003, there was an even bigger breakthrough when Libya announced it would abandon its weapons of mass destruction and allow inspectors into its facilities.
Relations with Washington also improved after Gadaffi condemned the 9/11 attacks and vowed to oppose al-Qaeda. “Irrespective of the conflict with America, it is a human duty to show sympathy with the American people and be with them at these horrifying and awesome events which are bound to awaken human conscience,” he said.
The leopard that changed its spots
Libyan oil exports to the US resumed and, in 2005, American energy companies invested in the country for the first time in more than two decades. By now, Gadaffi had even accepted the existence of Israel, advocating a binational single state solution – ‘Isratine’ as he called it – and opposing Palestinian extremist groups.
There are various explanations for Gadaffi’s U-turns. Some commentators believe that Saddam Hussein’s fate scared him. But this would seem unlikely – by 2003, Bush and Blair had set their sights elsewhere and relations with Libya were already improving. Even in 2002, at the time of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech, Libya was not on the list – neither would it have even made the Top Ten of Washington’s greatest foes.
The real answer may have more to do with simple ‘realpolitik’. The Libyan economy had been crippled by sanctions. The demise of the Soviet Union also strengthened America’s superpower status, reminding him that Libya no longer had a heavyweight ally to counter American power. Personal relationships also played a part, notably Gadaffi’s friendship with Nelson Mandela, which gave the Libyan leader a new veneer of respectability and alleged humanitarianism.
Historians and commentators will study Libya’s case history for a long time to come, fuelling debate about the relative merits of carrot and stick diplomacy.