Rice Making History With Trip to Libya, a Longtime Pariah Now Partly Rehabilitated

Her visit will be the first by a U.S. secretary of state in over half a century.

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The U.S. and Libyan governments once addressed each other through bombs and threats, but with the long-awaited visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Friday, that era has passed.

Rice's trip signals how far the historic turnaround in relations between the two former foes has come. After all, she is meeting with Muammar Qadhafi, the man Ronald Reagan called the "mad dog" of the Middle East. He ordered U.S. planes to bomb Qadhafi's residence and other sites in Tripoli in 1986.

In recent years, however, Qadhafi shed his nation's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and swore off involvement with terrorism—moves that permitted formal relations to be restarted. Qadhafi's government has wanted Rice to visit for some time now, recognizing how such a mission—the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to Libya since that of John Foster Dulles in 1953—will be seen as a marker of permanent reconciliation and renewed economic ties.

U.S. officials would like to encourage deeper cooperation from Libya on counterterrorism and on regional issues like Sudan and Chad, along with a wider opening for American firms to gain a foothold in Libya's vast oil and gas sector. Libya is also temporarily sitting on the United Nations Security Council, and the State Department wants to reach out to Tripoli on a variety of political issues. One success it counts is Libya's support for a third U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran for its nuclear programs.

The Libyans consider the Rice trip very important. They want to expand commercial links, especially in oil and gas production, as well as benefit from access to U.S. educational institutions and technology. Qadhafi, says Geoff Porter, director for the Middle East and Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy, "is finally getting the recognition from the U.S. that he has long sought."

U.S. officials are aware of how much Rice's presence means to the Libyans. "You can't put a dollar value on respectability," David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in an interview this week. "Reputation counts."

But the Bush administration deferred a trip until a breakthrough agreement could be reached in August. It establishes a comprehensive claims settlement mechanism for completing the stalled payouts to American victims and family members of the infamous Pan Am 103 downing and an attack on the La Belle disco in Berlin. That agreement, when funded, also entails payments to Libyan victims of the U.S. air raid.

The Rice trip marks a culmination—of sorts—of nearly five years of diplomatic effort to pull a once fiercely rogue state back into the international fold. During a period marked by setbacks and frustrations on numerous foreign policy fronts for the administration—most recently with Russia and North Korea—the progress on Libya is more than a little welcome. Photographs of Rice meeting Qadhafi, known in the North African state simply as "the Leader," will likely become a signature image of her secretaryship.

Publicizing the "Libya model" also dramatizes the possibility that other antagonists like Iran, Syria, and North Korea can revive relations with the United States if they change their conduct, in the administration's view.

And yet, dealing with Libya is also peppered with political sensitivities, particularly for an administration whose identity is intimately linked with fighting terrorism. Some families of the Pan Am 103 victims oppose rapprochement with Qadhafi, and some conservatives remain uncomfortable with doing anything that they construe as rewarding a former state sponsor of terrorism. Human rights problems in Libya's autocratic system also loom large.

Welch says that the administration understands that to "build a relationship with a country that has brought pain and suffering to many people, there's going to be a negative reaction from some." Welch himself lost a close friend in the downing of the Pan Am flight.