A Worthy Ally? Reconsidering US-Libyan Relations

Article excerpt

In June 2006, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Libya and removed it from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors, ending decades of tense relations and US-imposed sanctions. Analysts hail Libya's stunning reversal from rogue state to purported friend as a victory of US diplomacy and cite the "Libya model" as a model for negotiations with other antagonistic states. This new rapprochement is a turning point in US foreign policy, and while there are risks of further fueling Islamic resentment and deepening Libyan autocracy, the benefits of a partner in the war on terror and of a public diplomacy coup greatly outweigh the costs.

In recent years, Muammar Qaddafi, the autocratic ruler of Libya, has taken clear steps to align himself with the United States in an effort to gain Western trust. His administration has repeatedly apologized for its past violence, accepted responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie terrorist attacks, dismantled its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003, and cooperated with the United States in the war on terror. However, Libya's track record of human rights abuses is still among the worst in the world, calling into question whether the administration is worthy of US support. Freedom House gave Libya the lowest possible rating in all categories--political rights, civil liberties, and freedom--citing poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, domestic violence against women, the prohibition of independent human rights organizations, and the ban on independent press. Any form of political opposition is brutally and unsubtly quelled.

The United States and the European Union face the risk that their new diplomatic partnerships with Libya will help legitimize the regime and perpetuate the country's poor conditions. Libyan dissidents claim that Qaddafi will most likely use this new relationship to consolidate his political base and continue stamping out any possibility for political reform. There are also repercussions in the international arena. The United States has portrayed the war on terror as not only a military conflict but also an ideological struggle; current nation-building processes in Iraq and Afghanistan are inextricably linked with the words and values of "freedom," "liberty," and "democracy." In Libya, Qaddafi's eager suppression of the opposition Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), recognized as a terrorist organization, has only reinforced beliefs that US and EU motives are not those of building democracy but of self-interested security. Critics of a Western alliance with the Qaddafi regime claim that this "Western hypocrisy" further alienates the Muslim world and gives radical Islamists even more ammunition to attack the West. …