Sat, Jul 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Hail free Iraq, and ... hello there Mr. Qaddafi

TRUMPED Saddam's time has come, but amid all the self-congratulation some are asking why the US is suddenly cosying up to another dictator with a shabby record

AP , WASHINGTON

First, US President George W. Bush hailed the political handover in Iraq as a giant step toward democracy for the entire Middle East. Then, his administration announced it was resuming direct diplomatic ties with Libya -- a country ruled for 35 years by a dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.

Democracy may be the US administration's hope for the region. But for today -- as the warming of relations with Libya makes clear -- it still gets trumped by security concerns in the war on terrorism.

Oil-rich and terrorism-laden Saudi Arabia isn't democratic either, nor is Egypt. But both are US friends. The US also hasn't cut ties with Syria, though it considers it a sponsor of terrorism.

The administration sees Libya, in particular, as a huge diplomatic success and has gradually moved to improve relations. Qaddafi has agreed to give up his nuclear-weapons program, revealed secrets about the nuclear black market and taken responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan 103, promising to pay compensation to relatives of the 270 victims.

But Qaddafi is still a dictator.

"In practice, [Qaddafi] and his inner circle monopolize political power," the State Department said in its latest human-rights report.

Libya's "human-rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses," it said.

Supporters of Bush's approach note that improving relations with Libya not only eliminates a potential threat, but also sets an example for countries like North Korea and Iran about the benefits of disarming.

US businesses will also have new opportunities in Libya's energy sector.

Still, it was odd that the administration would announce it was opening a liaison office in Tripoli just as Bush was making a pitch for democracy in the Middle East. He spoke of his hopes for the region on Monday and Tuesday, after the handover of political power in Iraq.

"I believe that freedom is the future of the Middle East, because I believe that freedom is the future of all humanity," Bush said in Istanbul. "And the historic achievement of democracy in the broader Middle East will be a victory shared by all."

Supporters of Bush's approach to Libya also contend the US is more likely to promote democracy there by having relations.

But the administration hasn't always used that approach in dealing with dictators -- most notably Fidel Castro in Cuba.

There was "a gap between rhetoric and reality" because the administration has not been pressing Libya on democracy, said Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"It's representative of schizophrenia in White House policy," he said.

Libya remains on the State Department list of terror-sponsoring nations. The State Department says Libya has curtailed support for international terrorism, but maintains contact with "past terrorist clients."

While there are signs that Qaddafi is weary of being treated as a pariah and ready for reform, there are also signs he hasn't changed.

Most troubling are allegations that Libya took part in a plot last year to kill Saudi Arabia's crown prince. Libya denies the allegations.

The State Department says if that proves to be true, "it would call into question continued development of relations with Libya."

And Qaddafi hasn't stopped the extremist rhetoric. In Europe last April, he said he hoped that no evil would "force us to go back to the days when we use our cars and explosive belts."

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