Libya can't wait

March 22, 2004|By Kenneth R. Timmerman

TRIPOLI, Libya - France has jumped at what it sees as an opportunity to resume business as usual with Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi, hoping to take advantage of the North African country's recent opening to the West.

Led by a junior foreign trade minister, FranM-gois Loos, 71 French business leaders met for three days with top Libyan officials, signing a bilateral agreement to promote investment. They established a framework to resolve outstanding disputes over French contracts that had been blocked by the U.N. embargo on trade with Libya.

No U.S. trade delegation can go to Libya until the Bush administration lifts U.S. sanctions on trade with the country. The French know that.

The changes that have occurred over the past three months in Libya, and in U.S.-Libyan relations, are nothing short of monumental. Two U.S. congressional delegations addressed the Libyan General People's Congress in Sirte, the capital, earlier this month, uninterrupted and without censorship. It marked the first time Libya had opened its nominally elected body to members of Congress and allowed them to talk about U.S. values of transparency, a free-market economy and representative government. And that was only the beginning.

On March 6, U.S. and British experts loaded the last of Libya's nuclear weapons gear onto a cargo ship in Tripoli harbor that was destined for the United States. It culminated three months of unprecedented cooperation from Libya in dismantling its previously secret program to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.

Both the United States and Britain have praised Libya for its complete and verifiable disarmament. Factories where Libyan scientists were assembling uranium enrichment centrifuges just six months ago today stand empty. This followed Colonel Kadafi's surprise announcement Dec. 19 that he had abandoned terrorism and intended to get rid of his previously secret nuclear weapons program.

So far, the Libyans have fulfilled their obligations without exception. They have acknowledged responsibility for the actions of their officials in the December 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the September 1989 UTA Flight 772 bombing, and compensated the families of the victims. They have dismantled their weapons of mass destruction programs and invited the United States, Britain, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to verify that nothing remains.

"The record so far has been absolutely amazing," said Paula A. DeSutter, the assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, the official in charge of the U.S. disarmament effort.

In testimony before the House International Relations Committee on March 10, the State Department's top Middle East hand, William J. Burns, sketched a gradual approach of "reciprocal steps" that would eventually lead to the opening of a U.S. Liaison bureau in Libya - not a full-fledged embassy - later this year.

While continued Libyan compliance must certainly be verified, the U.S. caution will be welcome news to the French, who have never hesitated to prop up dictators throughout Africa and the Middle East and rarely raise human rights concerns when contracts are at stake.

"I would say this to the Americans: Don't let France beat us back into Libya," Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania told me after he met with Colonel Kadafi in Sirte. "We will not take advantage of the Libyan people the way the French have."

Mr. Weldon and other members of Congress who have visited Libya - including outspoken human rights advocates Rep. Tom Lantos of California and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, both Democrats - believe that Libya's opening to the West presents a historic opportunity for the United States and can serve as a model to other rogue states seeking to rejoin the world community.

Mr. Burns made clear to the House panel that the United States would include concerns raised by Congress - including human rights abuses, economic and political transparency and compensation for Libyan-American Jews whose property had been confiscated - in its ongoing dialogue with Colonel Kadafi's government. These are important issues, not just for the United States but for Libyans seeking greater freedom and protection from arbitrary rule.

But America's voice cannot be heard if we are not present. It's time to press forward aggressively, to challenge the Libyans to meet our concerns, but also to reward Libya with trade and a visible U.S. diplomatic presence.

One thing is sure: If we allow the French to set the boundaries for Libya's new relationship with the West, it won't be long before Colonel Kadafi is back to his old tricks.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight on the News magazine and the author of The French Betrayal of America (Crown Forum, 2004). He recently returned from a reporting trip to Libya.

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