"Billy" affair - why it happened, its consequences; Senate told of unique US-Libya relationship

Billy Carter's controversial foreign agentry catapults him into a global odd-couple relationship between two countries -- the United States and Libya -- that are mutually dependent and repellent.

The democratic Western superpower and the radical Arab desert state, while almost as estranged as two nations can be politically and diplomatically, are strangely drawn to each other by oil trade. And each in its own way is seeking closer ties.

That is the picture being drawn for the special Senate subcommittee investigating the foreign activities of the President's brother.

In this geopolitical context, the role of the younger Mr. Carter as a registered agent for the Libyan government emerges looking somehow less bizarre.

The transformation of a gas station owner and peanut warehouse operator in a Georgia hamlet into an international go-between fits into a very special set of bilateral circumstances.

Among these is the Libyan regime's revolutionary concept of using laymen -- so-called "People's Bureaus" -- rather than diplomats to conduct its foreign affairs.

One of the United States' highest-ranking diplomats, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (and former ambassador to Libya) David D. Newsom, concedes that the much-questioned use of Billy Carter to solicit Libyan aid in freeing the American hostages in Iran may have some validity.

"As a professional diplomat," he told the Senate subcommittee, "I realize the limitations of professional diplomacy."

Moreover, there has been a near-breakdown in official communications -- the American Embassy in Tripoli was burned eight months ago and the last US diplomats removed three months ago -- between two countries that have important reasons to keep in touch.

Besides the oil link, Libya is flanked by two of the United States' staunchest friends in the region, Egypt and Tunisia, and is home to more than 50 American companies and something over 2,000 American citizens.

"We have to use every available channel" when normal communications become so difficult, Mr. Newsom explains.

Finally, there is a vast potential trade market offered by Libya. Billy Carter's trade promotion activities -- accompanying Georgia businessmen to Libya and hosting a Libyan trade mission here -- coincide with a dawning awareness in entrepreneurial circles of the trade possibilities of this oil-rich North African land.

"With its high oil revenues and its major development programs," Mr. Newsom says, "Libya represents a valuable potential market for American products and services."

And it is a market so far largely untapped. While the United States pays Libya $9 billion a year for oil, Americans sell Libyans only about $500 million a year in exports.

Overall, relations between the United States and Libya, in any event, appear surprisingly less uniformly hostile than commonly supposed.

The bellicose government of Muammar Qaddafi, as President Carter noted in his press conference Aug. 4, is not actually the international "outcast" that it is often depicted to be.

Libya is a country whose strident public rhetoric against the American government ("the embodiment of evil") is counterbalanced by goodwill tours of the United States by Libyan delegations and free trips to Tripoli for large numbers of private Americans. A State Department official calls the Libyan attitude toward this country "ambivalent and often self-contradictory."

Libya's vocal and financial support of Islamic movements and terrorist organizations around the world contrasts with private, and later public, condemnation of the Iranian seizure of American hostages. Its repeated threats to cut the flow of its oil to the United States over political differences are outweighed by the economic benefits reaped from a partnership in which the US ranks as Libya's largest single oil customer, buying nearly 40 percent of its total output.

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