Wednesday, March 11, 2009

5 Years After It Halted Weapons Programs, Libya Sees the U.S. as Ungrateful

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN - New York Times, March 11, 2009

TRIPOLI, Libya — When Libya gave up its nuclear and chemical weapons programs in late 2003, President George W. Bush pointed to the decision as a victory in Washington’s so-called war on terror and as a potential model for pressing Iran and North Korea to give up their weapons programs, too.

But now Libyan officials say they are dissatisfied with the way the deal worked out, insisting that the United States has done too little to reward Libya’s concessions. Officials here say they believe that Libya’s limited payoff undermines the credibility of the United States as it presses other nations to abandon weapons programs.

Libya’s discontent suggests potential hurdles for the Obama White House as it tries to engage with nations the United States has shunned, like Iran and Syria, as part of a broader strategy reassessment in the Middle East.

While Libya says it does not plan to restart the weapons programs, its disaffection signals the need to manage expectations and reveals the unexpected challenges of developing relations with the former pariah state, which has been isolated for decades and remains run by an eccentric, enigmatic strongman, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“We gave some devices, some centrifuges, for example for America, but what do you give us? Nothing,” said Abdelrahman Shalgham, who served as foreign minister for eight years before being named ambassador to the United Nations this month. “That’s why we think North Korea and Iran are hesitating now to have a breakthrough regarding their projects.”

United States officials have said that in return for Libya’s abandoning its unconventional-weapons programs and other concessions, they lifted economic sanctions and restored diplomatic ties, which were severed in 1980. The United States has opened an embassy in Libya, sent an ambassador to Tripoli and discussed military cooperation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tripoli before leaving office.

But Libyans at many levels of the government said that while they appreciated those gestures, they had been promised more, including civilian nuclear technology, some conventional weapons systems and help destroying chemical weapons.

They were also miffed at a recent State Department report that strongly criticized Libya’s record on human rights, saying they expected that a friendly United States would play down the issue.

“Bush responded well about his appreciation and said Libya should be an example to the world, but that’s not enough — that’s not what they talked about,” said Khaled Bazelya, a director with Libya’s National Economic Development Board. “You give something, you expect something in return; that’s the Arab way. The expectation here is very high, but the West is not responding. We need a quicker response.”

A senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of Libyan-United States relations, said the Libyans “were being unrealistic in their expectation for how quickly the relationship could improve.”

The official said that if the “Libyans carry on with good behavior, I think the possibilities for civilian nuclear cooperation will improve.” The official said Libya could expect greater cooperation on technology sharing and the cleanup of chemical weapons stockpiles.

Libya’s complaints could be calculated, part of a negotiating tactic aimed at putting pressure on the new administration. Pentagon officials announced Friday that they would consider selling weapons systems to Libya.

Gaps in context and understanding, both cultural and political, can lead to long-term misunderstandings, often sabotaging diplomatic efforts. That is especially true with Libya, which is managed by a corps of bureaucrats who have limited international experience.

One diplomat in Libya, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said the government was shocked that the United States still criticized Libya’s human rights record. Libya is a police state where security services operate with impunity and political opposition is not allowed.

“When you were enemies, we didn’t care,” the diplomat said after the State Department issued its latest human rights report this month. “But now, you are supposed to be friends. We were surprised. There were 16 pages targeting Libya.”

Since agreeing to give up his nuclear weapons program more than five years ago and taking responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Colonel Qaddafi has tried to reintegrate Libya with the West. But the thaw in relations was not accompanied by any change in the authoritarian nature of Libya, which poses a problem for Western countries.

Getting closer to Libya, after all, means getting closer to the mercurial Colonel Qaddafi, who is known here as the Brother Leader.

“Dealing with Qaddafi is not easy because he is unpredictable,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, the deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a research center in Cairo that is supported by the Egyptian government.

With his flamboyant desert robes, wraparound sunglasses and head of curly hair, Colonel Qaddafi has been eager to transform himself from rogue revolutionary leader to international statesman. That has been part of the program to reopen Libya to the world.

He was recently named chairman of the African Union, and this month he appeared at a ceremony in Libya with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. They announced final ratification of a treaty resolving the animosity stemming from Italy’s colonial occupation of Libya. At the ceremony, Mr. Berlusconi offered an apology to the Libyan people and heaped praise on Colonel Qaddafi, inviting the man President Ronald Reagan once called a “mad dog” to attend the coming Group of 8 conference of advanced industrial democracies in Rome. The two men hugged.

“I don’t know what to call him,” Mr. Berlusconi said, smiling at Colonel Qaddafi, who was smiling back. “He has so many titles: the Leader of the Revolution, King of Kings, Chairman of the African Union. And he deserves them and more.”

As that leader, Colonel Qaddafi’s personal interests, or animosities, can drive the nation’s agenda. For months, Libya has been locked in a diplomatic fight with Switzerland, after the Swiss police arrested one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Hannibal, and his wife, Aline, on charges they had beaten two household workers during a visit to Geneva.

Immediately after the arrests, Libya pulled millions of dollars from Swiss bank accounts, ordered all Swiss businesses out of Libya, stopped selling oil to Switzerland, closed the Swiss cultural center, blocked Swiss ships from docking in Libyan ports and demanded that the police who detained Hannibal be punished, diplomats here said.

Late last month, Libya rejected a Swiss proposal to resolve the dispute.