Libya Moves Back Into Circulation

Qadhafi seeks rehabilitation, but not everybody buys it

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Let bygones be bygones: In Paris, Qadhafi and Sarkozy reach out to each other at the Elysée.

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In policy circles, it's called the "Libyan model." That's shorthand for when a rogue state abandons both the terrorism business and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and retrieves, more or less, a normal place in the community of nations. Libya did just that in 2003 and 2004, and the country's mercurial strongman, Muammar Qadhafi, provided the Bush administration with a unique post-9/11 foreign policy triumph that has endured—though it has not, as had been hoped, prompted other antagonists to follow in Libya's footsteps.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to reward Qadhafi's still-disputed rehabilitation with a visit to his North African desert nation in the first half of next year. Last week, Qadhafi made a high-profile journey to a major western capital, Paris, his first trip to France in more than 30 years. He pitched his Bedouin-style tent in a courtyard next to the presidential Elysée Palace and signed contracts worth some $15 billion for 21 Airbus planes, a civilian nuclear power reactor, and other items. Weapons deals were on the agenda, too. His visit wasn't all smiles and business deals, though, as human-rights activists and others criticized both Qadhafi and the man who invited him, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

With less fanfare, Washington has been mending relations with the once pariah state and its chief. U.S.-Libyan relations have improved; each nation now maintains a diplomatic mission in the other's capital. And in October, the administration acquiesced in Libya's ascent to a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council after having worked to block earlier bids.

Trade is up, Libyans are starting to return to American universities, and U.S. oil companies are again becoming active inside Libya. Once renowned for African meddling, Libya is said to be playing a helpful role on the Darfur humanitarian crisis in next-door Sudan. Tripoli and Washington are cooperating on counterterrorism. And, say U.S. officials, Libya has held to its vow to stay out of terrorism and away from the development of nuclear and chemical weapons. "Libya has come in from the cold," says an administration official. Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Aujali, characterizes the relationship this way: "Ninety percent has been repaired."

Long memories. And yet, the four years since the Libyan breakthrough have not proved long enough to undo all of the lingering suspicion and hostility accumulated over three decades. That mixed record will come under close scrutiny when Rice makes the highest-level U.S. visit to Libya in half a century. Aujali says that the two countries have been handling some "very heavy" issues in advance of her trip and that Rice's visit will signify that the two countries have "finished rebuilding the confidence between them."

Perhaps, but despite Rice's announcement last year that Washington would restore full diplomatic relations with Tripoli, hopes that the action would clear a path away from past troubles remain unrealized. The two countries have exchanged senior representatives, the American working out of a five-star hotel in Tripoli, the Libyan out of the Watergate complex in Washington. But they do not yet function as full ambassadors.

The primary reason is congressional dissatisfaction with Libyan moves to atone for past terrorism. Key senators, including Democrats Frank Lautenberg and Hillary Clinton, are poised to block the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador until Libya completes payments to the families of American victims of Libyan attacks. Opponents on Capitol Hill aim to deny even funding a permanent embassy building in Tripoli. "The administration's actions in recent months have failed to show the requisite commitment to American victims of Libyan terrorism," Lautenberg, Clinton, and six other senators wrote in a letter to Rice last week.

The administration has named a future ambassador but in its weakened political condition has seemed reluctant to battle with Congress over his confirmation. "I think they looked at it and said, 'We don't want to stir up that hornet's nest,'" says David Mack, a former State Department official and now vice president of the Middle East Institute.