Toward Re-Engagement: A Shift in US-Libyan Relations

By Reyes, Silvestre | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Toward Re-Engagement: A Shift in US-Libyan Relations


Reyes, Silvestre, Harvard International Review


Following the attacks of September 11, US foreign policy has increasingly focused on the threats of terrorism, extremism, and weapons of mass destruction. These are real challenges that unfortunately have been complicated by US involvement in Iraq. We have, however, seen progress in perhaps the most unlikely of places: Libya.

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For many, Libya's December 2003 "renaissance" and subsequent acceptance into the international community seemed the stuff of fiction. Libya? What about its long history of anti-Western sentiment and efforts to build a nuclear program? What about US claims that Libya is responsible for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland? And what about the mercurial and mysterious Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, whom US President Ronald Reagan once referred to as "the mad dog of the Middle East?" Thoughts of Qaddafi conjure images of a man whose actions over the past 35 years have terrorized nations large and small and led to a complete breakdown in relations between the United States and Libya. Qaddafi's renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, which surrendered his nation's weapons materials to the United States and Great Britain, shocked the world and demonstrated a dramatic shift in his policies and prerogatives.

Why this sudden shift? No doubt experts and scholars will debate varying theories for years. Counter-proliferation and intelligence operations by the United States and its allies played a significant role in Libya's decision. However, Libya's desire to re-engage with the international community, to attract much-needed foreign investment, and to start down a new political and economic path were also important factors.

In order for the United States and the international community to re-engage with Libya, they must begin to shift the focus of their efforts from the problems of Libya's past to the promise of Libya's future--from the threats of Libyan terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to the challenges facing Libya's families, their economy, health care, education, and civil rights. This is a major opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of open, transparent government and relationships with the Western world. Just as the United States played an important role in spurring Qaddafi's pledge to end his self-described "voluntary separation" from the international community, the United States can play a constructive role assisting Libya in its new beginning.

The US Congress can and must act in these diplomatic efforts. In fact, members of the US Congress can do so with a flexibility that Bush administration officials lack. We are representatives not of the President of the United States but of diverse cross-sections of the US public. Though we are working toward the same goal as the administration, our varying perspectives, differing backgrounds, and legislative authority have the potential to contribute to substantial progress.

Libya's Dangerous Past

Even the most cursory inspection of Qaddafi's past actions in Libya reveals a dangerous agenda. Qaddafi rose to power in 1969 as the 27-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Qaddafi, from a poor nomadic family, sought to rid the country of a US and British military presence and what he perceived to be powerful foreigners who were unfairly reaping the benefits of Libya's oil fields. Qaddafi overthrew the Libyan monarchy and created a new government that aimed to link populism, socialism, Islam, and Arab nationalism and to produce social justice--or his version of it--in Libya.

Qaddafi replaced Libya's constitution with a political system based on ideological principles contained in his "Green Book," namely a socialist

economy and a direct democracy the Libyan people were intended to carry out themselves. Through his "Cultural Revolution," he created People's Committees in 1973 and gave himself the title "Guide of the Revolution.

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