Libya: News and Views      LibyaNet.Com      Libyan music       Libya: Our Home
The Washington Post
Monday, 11 March, 2002

Bush White House Reconsidering Reagan's 'Evil Man'
Gaddafi's Gestures May Change Policies

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 11, 2002; Page A14

The Bush administration is evaluating the recent behavior of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who has been making overtures to Washington in hopes of shedding his pariah status and eliminating the U.S. embargo that bans American oil companies from Libya.

Gaddafi's emissaries have delivered intelligence on terrorism since Sept. 11, while diplomats and lawyers report progress toward a financial settlement and a statement of Libyan responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Administration officials caution that no change in U.S. policy is imminent. But supporters of an opening say a new start for Libya would signal other countries accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism, such as Syria and Iran, that better behavior will be rewarded. It would show Arab nations that U.S. ostracism need not be permanent. And it would fulfill the ambitions of U.S. oil interests, which are pressing to return to business in Libya.

Skeptics, however, question the wisdom of rehabilitating a former terrorist enemy such as Libya, particularly in the midst of the U.S. global campaign against terrorism. "We have a lot of issues with the Libyans," said an administration official, "and they've got a long way to go to prove their bona fides."

A decision is expected Thursday on the appeal of a Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the Pan Am 103 attack, which killed 270 people. If the murder verdict is upheld, negotiators from Libya, Britain and the United States hope to finalize terms allowing United Nations sanctions to be lifted permanently, a preliminary step to any change in the unilateral U.S. embargo.

"There is clearly a light at the end of the tunnel if he plays his cards right," said a U.S. official who concentrates on Libya.

Top administration officials say any decision to lift U.S. sanctions would take time and is by no means certain. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has spoken publicly of his worries about Libya's interest in weapons of mass destruction, and a CIA report in January said Libya continues to seek missile technology and chemical weapons. Africa specialists are raising questions about Gaddafi's backing of troublesome governments on the continent.

Eleven prominent U.S. senators wrote Powell last month to insist that the administration not take any shortcuts to excuse Libya from U.N. sanctions. They demanded that Gaddafi's government issue "an explicit acceptance of responsibility" for the Lockerbie bombing. To fulfill U.N. requirements, they said, the administration must be "convinced, beyond a doubt, that Libya has abandoned all support for terrorism" and has told the Americans all it knows.

Demonstrating the political reach of the issue, the signers ranged from liberals Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to conservatives Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Powell replied that the administration has told the Libyans "there will be no shortcuts and no deals."

"It is more important now than ever before," Powell wrote, "that Libya put its terrorist past behind it once and for all, including by dealing with Pan Am 103 as demanded by the international community."

Even the most studious Libya-watchers are wary of predictions, given Gaddafi's reputation for volatility. The CIA told Congress this year that Libya expanded procurement of technology and equipment related to rocket production and "continues to develop its nuclear research and development program."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said Gaddafi needs to provide open international access to Libya's weapons programs, calling transparency his "bottom line." Comprehensive guidelines will be essential if the United States frees Libya from sanctions, Lugar said, "so that we're not fools in the process."

In 1986, shortly after U.S. intelligence tied Libya to a disco bombing in Berlin that killed an American soldier, President Ronald Reagan referred to Gaddafi as "this evil man" and sent U.S. warplanes to attack Libya, including Gaddafi's compound. The United States also ordered four oil companies out of Libya, a move they say has cost them billions.

Less than two years later, a bomb packed into a suitcase exploded aboard Pan Am Flight 103, which was carrying 259 mostly American passengers and crew. Another 11 people died on the ground. British and American investigators traced the crime to Libyan agents and, after years of delay, Gaddafi turned over two suspects for trial.

Gaddafi was a "madman in some respects," the State Department's counterterrorism chief once said, but also wily. In the late 1990s, ostracized and presiding over a country suffering economically, Gaddafi turned in a new direction. He surrendered the two agents to a Netherlands court -- one was convicted in January -- extradited wanted terrorists to Arab countries, severed ties with militant Palestinian groups and expelled the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.

The State Department credited Gaddafi for the moves and the United Nations suspended its sanctions in 1999. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer recently recalled his experience with Gaddafi, a sworn enemy of the "Zionist occupation" of Arab lands.

"A long time, as I remember myself, Gaddafi kept us very busy with what he was going to do with his next move," Ben-Eliezer said. "Today, he keeps quiet. If the other leaders will take their lessons from Gaddafi, then I am happy."

The oil companies that quit Libya in 1986 -- Marathon, Conoco, Amerada Hess and Occidental -- have been pressing their case to Congress and the White House, but they understand that their cause is a loser until the Lockerbie case is settled. As one oil lobbyist put it, "We can't set it up as blood of the victims against oil profits."

"The families have to be paid, and Lockerbie has to be brought to closure. That's the wall we're up against," said the lobbyist, who requested anonymity. "Our intention has only been to protect our assets so that at the point we have a normal relationship, we can go back in. There is a sense that things will move in an orderly way."

Attorneys for relatives of the Lockerbie victims have met several times with Libyan negotiators, most recently in Paris, where the parties discussed a settlement counted in billions of dollars. Lawyer Lee Kreindler said, "We're proceeding well toward a settlement, but we're not there yet. We expect the numbers to be very high."

The appeals court decision could play a role. Much current thinking is based on the assumption that the Scottish judges will affirm the conviction of Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi. Libyans including Gaddafi's son Seif el-Islam have been quoted as saying the government is likely to pay compensation even if Megrahi's verdict is overturned.

More important than money to some of the Pan Am 103 families is a Libyan statement of responsibility.

Gaddafi "would have to say, 'Libya did it, I was aware of it' and give us the details," said Susan Cohen, whose only child died aboard Pan Am 103. She said the Libyan leader is "likely to pull all kinds of stuff." Several U.S. officials said it is unlikely that Gaddafi will take personal responsibility for the attack.

If Libya settles, a Capitol Hill aide said, a Bush-Cheney White House friendly to energy and oil services interests will soon push to restart U.S. trade with Libya. "There's a lot of pressure out there," the aide said. "The oil companies want to go back in, big-time."

A foreign diplomat in Washington, noting that other governments have been trading with Libya, said the parole of Gaddafi could send a positive message, but the stakes are high.

"It's a big gamble," said the diplomat. "And you're not gambling with an anonymous guy in a suit, you're gambling with Gaddafi, and that's not an entirely safe bet."

2002 The Washington Post Company

Libya: News and Views      LibyaNet.Com      Libyan music       Libya: Our Home