- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

As part of efforts to bring about democracy and freedom to the more restrictive Arab countries, the Bush administration is cozying up to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi after he reneged on terrorism and gave up trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Col. Gadhafi, the one-time blackest of sheep among Middle East potentates, has suddenly turned a lighter gray.

With that in mind Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed to Libya this week hoping to push forward diplomatic relations, which Libya would like to expand into full-blown ambassadorial exchanges. Mr. Lugar’s trip will be the highest-profile U.S. visit to Libya. It follows earlier visits by officials from the Treasury and State Departments. However, exchanging ambassadors may be a while off as Col. Gadhafi still needs to introduce real changes in Libya.

For decades, Col. Gadhafi has taunted the United States and the West by blatantly supporting terrorist groups, funding extremist Palestinian factions and arming the Irish Republican Army, as well as supporting a number of European separatist organizations such as the Corsicans, Basques and others.

For nearly 30 years, Col. Gadhafi arrested, jailed and executed — often without trial — tens of hundreds of Libyans opposed to his authoritarian demagoguery.

Col. Gadhafi never hesitated to order his special branch of trained assassins to eliminate dissidents around the world or to place bombs in German discotheques frequented by American servicemen. He had a French civilian airplane blown up over Africa when he disagreed with Paris and was blamed for bombing PanAm flight 103 over Scotland to spite Washington.

Col. Gadhafi tried to acquire weapons of mass destructions only to later realize he would never be able to deliver them. In his own words, the Libyan revolution’s supreme leader said if Libya ever managed to build or acquire a nuclear bomb, it would probably be able to hit only the island of Malta. And to what avail?

So why has Col. Gadhafi decided to change? Or has he?

Critics argue truly nothing in Tripoli has changed. Astute as ever, Col. Gadhafi handed to a visiting U.S. congressional delegation some nuclear-bomb-making equipment, and a promise to introduce political changes and democracy.

But can Col. Gadhafi, who has ignored the law and ruled Libya through whims and caprices since he overthrew the monarchy in 1969, truly introduce democracy?

Mahmoud Chamam, a Libyan journalist in the United States, said on Al Hurra TV Monday that arrests and executions were still common practice in Libya and nothing had changed.

Mr. Chamam and other Libyan exiles reject Col. Gadhafi’s “reforms” as pure whitewash meant to placate the Bush administration and win prestige and legitimacy with the world and his own people. Col. Gadhafi even invited President Bush to visit Libya. That would be the ultimate reward.

Contented the Libyan leader is talking of reform, the administration has engaged him in dialogue, hoping to normalize relations, but along the way somehow continued to ignore his human-rights abuses.

Precisely this attitude has long angered critics of U.S. foreign policy who accuse Washington of consistently supporting corrupt regimes when it suits its interests.

At this point, it is worth asking what led Col. Gadhafi to change his policy?

According to several Libyan exiles, one of his sons, Saif al-Islam, is more business-oriented than his father. Saif and his business associates would like to acquire concessions of mega-American corporations, such as MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and Nike. But as long as Libya remains on the U.S. State Department terror list, doing business with U.S. companies remains impossible. So Saif convinces daddy building WMD and supporting terrorism is bad for business. Well, you get the drift.

Changes are announced to the outside world while internally the regime continues detaining political prisoners, muzzling the press and banning political parties. Saif meanwhile, who holds no official position in the Libyan government, invited Libyan expatriates to return and invest in Libya’s future.

If Libyans failed to flock back taking Col. Gadhafi at his word, Western leaders wasted little time jostling for positions and business deals. In this respect, Mr. Bush is not alone in flirting with Col. Gadhafi and his potentially lucrative oil fields. Other Western leaders who already have visited Libya include Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The list of foreign visitors looks impressive, but Libyan dissidents say they would like to see real changes.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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