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Rice's visit to a changed Libya

The Bush administration hopes it highlights the potential for pariah states to come in from the cold.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2008

Meeting Friday: Secretary of State Rice and Libyan leader Qaddafi will discuss economic ties, regional issues, and oil. The last time a high-ranking US official visited Tripoli was in 1957.

Ali Abbas/Reuters/FILE

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When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Libya Friday for a sit-down with the once-reviled leader Muammar Qaddafi, it will symbolize both how far US-Libya relations have come and, from the Bush administration perspective, the potential for pariah states to come in from the cold.

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As Secretary Rice and Colonel Qaddafi discuss economic ties, regional issues, and oil, the United States will be hoping that Iran and North Korea, in particular, are taking note. Instead of confronting the US and the international community with a nuclear weapons program, US officials say, Libya is reaping the economic and diplomatic benefits of having renounced its terrorist avocation and weapons-of-mass-destruction ambitions in 2003.

State Department officials buttress their characterization of Rice's visit as "historic" by pointing out that the last high-ranking US official to visit Tripoli was Richard Nixon – in 1957, when he was vice president.

But not everyone sees Rice's stop in Libya in such glowing terms. Some of the families of victims of terrorist acts carried out by the Qaddafi regime are not satisfied with reparation settlements. Qaddafi himself this week appeared to play down any game-changing turn in US-Libya relations, saying he did not view the US with either "friendship or enmity."

And the demonstration effect of Libya's return to the international community following its renunciation of its nuclear and other weapons programs could also be open to debate.

"It's doubtful the Libya example will mean much to Iran, in large part because Iran is in a better position as it faces down the international community than Libya was," says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Oil-producer Iran is in a stronger position economically than Libya was because of today's high energy prices, Mr. Phillips says. The economic impact of international sanctions was higher for Libya because the US and Europe were more united in imposing them than is the case with Iran, he adds. "Then there's the fact that Iran is in a better position [than Libya was] in the United Nations Security Council because of the positions of China and Russia, and it adds up to a very different scenario," he says.