Diplomacy takes two

May 18, 2006

For the pariah state of Libya and its maximum leader, Muammar el Kadafi, the path to rehabilitation and restoration of full U.S. relations has been long, circuitous and, at times, strange. But it shows that sanctions and diplomacy - as opposed to pre-emption - can work, if Washington's patience is firm enough.

Libya's human rights situation is a nightmare. Its economy is riddled with corruption. And its political life remains under the control of Mr. Kadafi, who from time to time still pops off in unpredictable and threatening ways. This is not a regime that Washington can take pride in befriending. But peaceably defanging Tripoli is a real accomplishment - the only one of its kind for the Bush administration.

Libya has given financial settlements to the families of the victims of its airplane and nightclub bombings, dismantled its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, and is said to have been cooperating with the United States on counterterrorism. Not incidentally, it also has enough oil to be of interest to Western firms (though its reserves are believed insufficient to have an impact on world markets). The result: Monday's much-anticipated announcement of the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations that were cut off more than a quarter-century ago.

With Libya heading back in from the cold, Bush administration neocons have tried to claim a chastened Tripoli as a byproduct of their tough post-9/11 stance and their invasion of Afghanistan and pre-emptory war in Iraq. But negotiations with Libya actually began secretly in 1999 under the Clinton administration, and they were initially prompted by economic problems within Libya and perhaps the moderating influence of Mr. Kadafi's son and possible heir - not by the much later actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These days, the administration touts Libya's journey as a hopeful model for handling Iran and North Korea, and this is correct. There is, indeed, a peaceful path from rogue state to world citizen. It involves diplomacy, not force, and Libya is a remarkable example. But it takes two to talk, two to carry out the diplomacy, and at times Washington has been as intractable as Iran and North Korea in not pursuing negotiations. If Tehran and Pyongyang have much to learn by studying Libya's startling rehabilitation, then so does Washington.

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