LIBYA'S Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is harvesting results from his ``charm offensive,'' first launched in earnest early last year. ``He's gotten out of the extreme isolation of 1986-87 and eased the severe domestic pressures he faced,'' says Mary Jane Deeb, Libya specialist at American University in Washington.
The volatile Libyan leader is currently mending long-strained relations with Egypt. He has closely linked himself to other North African neighbors. He also won credit, and perhaps an unfreezing of trade, from Belgium for helping to free a Belgian hostage in Lebanon this month.
This opening comes despite the international outcry just a few months ago over Libya's efforts to build a chemical-weapons plant, and what many see as his continued support for terrorism and destabilization of unfriendly governments.
Still, Colonel Qaddafi's success is not complete. He faces rumblings at home. The European Community's ban on arms sales and high-level visits to Libya (imposed in response to Libya's reported involvement in terrorism) is generally holding.
The United States remains particularly skeptical. But the colonel has made gestures to Washington. In a speech this month, he called the Bush administration ``reasonable and mature.'' Libya has also reportedly extended negotiations with US oil companies over oil concessions, which Libya has operated since US sanctions were imposed in 1986. Qaddafi is also trying to woo a dubious Britain, reportedly with offers to help release British hostages in Lebanon.
Ironically, few experts, or even those who have moved to renew ties with Libya, think the quixotic Qaddafi is a reformed man. Some neighbors in Africa and Europe, however, hope to profit from oil-rich Libya and Qaddafi's desire to have friends. Others see a chance to build firebreaks against future misdeeds by Qaddafi.
The US, among others, is looking for solid proof of reform. The Rabta chemical weapons plant is ``still not designed to turn out aspirin,'' says a top US official. ``We count eleven examples'' of Libyan destabilization activities in Africa ``over the past six months,'' adds another. ``He still shelters Abu Nidal'' and aids other terrorists, says a third US official. Skeptics unconvinced
``I remain unpersuaded that he has really changed,'' says Henry Schuler, who is completing a book on US-Libyan relations during Qaddafi's rule. ``We've seen this before and it's turned out to be unreal,'' says Mr. Schuler, a specialist on Libya and oil markets at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This sentiment is echoed by North African, Egyptian, and West European diplomats, despite their interest in pursuing Qaddafi's gestures. ``None of us think Qaddafi has basically altered his goals or his ways,'' says an informed North African official, ``but pressures are driving him to seek openings, and we want to take advantage of those for political and, frankly, economic gain. We also see that those very openings could give him the room he needs to misbehave again,'' he adds.
Meanwhile, North Africans argue that the best way to moderate the colonel is to entangle him in a web of economic and political ties with his neighbors, as is being done through the new Arab Maghreb Union, whose members include Libya, Morrocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Algeria.
London-based specialist Lillian Craig Harris says the North African nations, including Libya, are being pushed together in order to have more leverage with the European Community when it forms a unified market in 1992.
``It's not so much that Qaddafi has changed, but that the regional situation has changed,'' Ms. Harris says. Not only is North Africa coming together out of economic necessity, but Egypt has mended its ties with Libya's eastern neighbor, Algeria, and reentered the Arab League. That threatens Qaddafi with further isolation.
``Qaddafi is not stupid,'' Harris says. ``He sees that his earlier tactics have failed.'' ``He's a survivor,'' Professor Deeb adds, ``and will do what seems in his interest.''
From the Arab perspective, Qaddafi is like the delinquent kid brother - you have to keep him in line, but despite his foibles, he is still family, Harris adds.
Egyptian officials stress that Qaddafi made his overtures to President Mubarak in the context of the Arab world welcoming Egypt back and largely accepting its approach to the Middle East peace process.
When the two leaders met privately at last month's Arab summit, Mubarak was very candid with Qaddafi, says a senior Egyptian official who speaks authoritatively about the discussion. Mubarak ``told him that if he wants to change Libya's bad image, he will have to change his policies.'' Then, this official says, Mubarak singled out Libya's hard line on Israel, its support for terrorism, and its pursuit of chemical weapons as policies to change.
Perhaps because of the frank discussion Qaddafi then, for the first time ever, accepted the Arab Summit's endorsement of United Nations resolution 242 as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace, the Egyptian says. Subsequently, the Egyptian-Libyan border was opened, commercial airline flights resumed, and discussions have begun on restoring diplomatic relations.
In Washington, however, suspicions remain high. ``We are looking for sustained behavior, not short-term performance,'' says a Bush administration official. At least twice before, US officials say, Qaddafi has launched such ``charm offensives'' and worked his way back into good graces, only to revert to his offensive ways. Even now, Qaddafi's behavior remains unacceptable, they say.
Libya has not yet converted its Rabta chemical-weapons plant to civilian use, they say. Progress in bringing the gigantic plant to production has ground to a halt due to US and international pressure. The US continues to press any companies or countries whose nationals may be involved at Rabta.
``The Libyans seem now to see this as a setback to their effort to present themselves as a normal state,'' says the senior US official. But it is far from clear they've given up their effort to ``pursue two tracks,'' he says.
Washington is equally suspicious on terrorism. Though Qaddafi apparently helped secure the release of the Belgian hostage, it appears he was held by the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) which is headquartered in Libya. The ANO's ``acquisition'' and release of the Belgian may even have been engineered to help Qaddafi, some say, as was the case with the earlier release of two French teenagers held by Abu Nidal.
Though the Abu Nidal group itself has been passive of late, it was responsible for a series of murderous attacks in 1988. There is no sign Libya is willing to evict the group, specialists say. Qaddafi also still maintains support for the Irish Republican Army and other terrorist groups.
Tweaking the US
He still tweaks the US by such things as sending money to Panama's Manuel Noriega, US officials say. Qaddafi is also still involved in subversion in Africa. The small nation of Burundi, for example, expelled all Libyans for coup-plotting this spring. While Libya's war with Chad is quiet now, the African mediation effort has not been able to work out a formal peace. Libya continues to arm and shelter anti-government rebels in Chad, US Africa hands say.
In Africa, ``these activities are more low key now,'' says one, ``but they are as active as ever, if not more so.''
Skeptics in Washington say Qaddafi will use any easing of isolation to further stock his military arsenal and rebuild his regional clout after Libya's humiliating 1987 military defeat in Chad. In addition to the chemical-weapons plant, they flag Libyan efforts to procure long-range missiles from Brazil and the recent purchase of Soviet long-range bombers.
A key US objective, officials say, is to keep the US and European embargo on arms sales and high-level visits in place until Qaddafi has given proof of further reform.
Still, Qaddafi's successes, including opening borders with Tunisia and Egypt, have provided ``safety valves'' for a very restive domestic population, Deeb says.
``He's now in the position to say `Look, I've been accepted by North Africa's leaders and I'm now being welcomed by Egypt,''' she says. ``This undermines his domestic opponents'' though he still faces serious problems with religious fundamentalism and a poorly functioning economy.