Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's plans to pitch his Bedouin tent in his first-ever visit to the US next month – to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York – might have been expected to come off with little commotion.
After all, Mr. Qaddafi's renunciation of terrorism and his 2003 decision to give up all weapons-of-mass-destruction programs paved the way for Libya to rejoin the community of nations, with even the United States reestablishing full diplomatic ties in 2006.
Libya, where he received a hero's welcome – including from Qaddafi himself.
Now Qaddafi can expect the kind of venomous reception reserved in recent years for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he has attended the annual UN General Assembly. Large protests are already in the works, with families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie promising to dog the Libyan leader with shouts of "not welcome!" wherever he goes.
Rancor is especially sharp in New Jersey, where 33 of the flight's 259 passengers lived and where Libya owns a large estate upon which Qaddafi may choose to pitch his trademark tent.
Qaddafi's decision to make his first-ever trek to United Nations headquarters this year can be explained by the mercurial leader's ongoing quest to establish a larger leadership role for himself and for Libya, experts say.
"It's a good platform for reaching out to all the third-world countries he's long aspired to represent as some kind of champion or leader, but it also puts him out there before the broader global community," says Randall Newnham, a specialist in economic sanctions at the Berks campus of Pennsylvania State University in Reading.
US officials have condemned Qaddafi's exuberant reception of Mr. al-Megrahi as a mistake that could affect Libya's international standing. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday that any further "lionizing" of al-Megrahi could have a "profoundly negative effect" on US-Libya relations.
But Dr. Newnham says Qaddafi may be trying to use the Megrahi return to raise his standing in certain parts of the world. His profile as a radical has dimmed in recent years as Mr. Ahmadinejad's has risen.
"He may be acting up more now because of the concessions he made earlier to the US and the West," Newnham says. "He may feel he's lost his credentials as a radical, and so he's seized upon a way to show the third world and Muslim countries that he is not just a cat's paw for the West."
In any case, Qaddafi has now profoundly altered the symbolism of his presence next month in New York. President Obama plans to chair a Security Council session on nonproliferation Sept. 24, but Qaddafi's presence at that meeting – before as a shining example of a responsible renunciation of nuclear weaponry – has now become a diplomatic nightmare.
Former Bush administration UN ambassador John Bolton says an imagined photo-op for Mr. Obama, Qaddafi, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown – whom British conservatives have skewered over what they suspect was Mr. Brown's approval of the Megrahi release – would be a "cozy scene" that would illustrate a "spectacular failure" of Obama foreign policy.
Mr. Bolton, writing Monday in London's Daily Telegraph, says that under Obama's "engagement with friend and foe alike," diplomatic advances were expected to "flow like wine." Instead, he says, friends disregarded US pleas and released Megrahi, and foes received the convicted terrorist with fanfare.