If President Bush’s immigration speech was an attempt to divert attention from his failures in Iraq, then Condi Rice’s announcement this week that the U.S. would restore diplomatic ties with Libya — and that Iran and North Korea should take note — may have been a useful distraction of attention from the fact that in the course of a single week, she’d suffered two significant diplomatic setbacks (on the quest for Iran sanctions and on the attempt to financially throttle the Palestinian Authority). Most of the media seemed to lap up her explanation that Libya had been suddenly cowed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq into renouncing terrorism, WMD and seeking to rehabilitate itself in the international community.
That revisionist account, of course, ignores the fact that Libya had been strenuously attempting to restore ties with the West for more than a decade — that was the intention of all those talks over taking responsibility for Lockerbie, which were mediated by the South Africans in the mid 1990s. Libya had longsince begged off sponsoring terror attacks against the West, although part of the Colonel’s grand ambition to style himself as a Pan-African liberator had seen him back some of the most vicious war criminals (think Charles Taylor or Foday Sankoh) that the continent has ever seen. Yes, it was only in 2003 that Gadhafi declared his nuclear program and shipped it off to Washington. But that simply completed a process that had already begun years before, during the Clinton administration.
What much of the reporting of the story seems to have overlooked, however, is that there was an intense lobbying effort from the mid 1990s onward by the U.S. oil industry to rehabilitate Libya and lift sanctions so that U.S. companies could take the lead in upgrading Libya’s aging infrastructure and get a jump on the competition for drilling rights.
You have to figure that since those days, the oil price has increased four-fold, and consequently the incentive. (The Bush administration has already lifted the sanctions, restoring diplomatic ties is a symbolic icing on the cake.) That’s probably why Gadhafi has been entirely rehabilitated despite being the same old flaky despot he always was. (Ripley’s Believe it Or Not take note: What constitutional leadership position does Gadhafi hold in Libya? That’s right, none at all.) It’s not as if he’s suddenly holding elections or allowing freedom of speech and the press. He’s just become your garden variety friendly oil-autocrat.
And as for Condi saying this is the model for Iran and North Korea, I wonder if that bit of flakkery was run through the “careful of what you wish for” policy test: Libya, in negotiations with the U.S. and others, satisfied Western concerns over terrorism and WMD, and was then rehabilitated to the point of diplomatic relations, i.e. it got security guarantees. Regime-change was taken off the table, even though by Bush’s measure, Gadhafi’s regime is presumably no more legitimate that Ayatollah Khamenei’s. Libya is arguably less democratic than Iran. So, does Rice’s comment suggest that the U.S. is about to take regime-change off the table if the Iranians negotiate in good faith to satisfy Western concerns over nuclear proliferation and terrorism? If so, that would be a dramatic turnabout on the part of the Bush Administration, which rebuffed an Iranian offer to do just that in 2003. Something tells me, though, that it was more likely simply a rhetorical flourish from a Secretary of State whose record suggest she’s a lot better at PR than she is at diplomacy.