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Posted: 12/23/2003 5:15:05 PM EDT
December 23, 2003



'HE is almost in from the cold." This is how British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the latest position of the Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Khadafy. Straw called Khadafy "a statesman" and "a man we could do business with."
An hour earlier, Prime Minister Tony Blair had phoned the colonel in Tripoli to relay similar sentiments. Unusual words of praise also came from President Bush.

Why this sudden warmth for a man described only a week ago as a terrorist mastermind? British and U.S. officials say that, thanks to months of patient diplomacy, Khadafy has been persuaded to abandon his quest for weapons of mass destruction, and would also terminate support for terrorist organizations.

In exchange, Britain and the United States will persuade the United Nations to lift the sanctions enacted against Libya after the Lockerbie tragedy 15 years ago. America will also end the sanctions imposed under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Within months, Libya would be open for massive Western investment in its ailing oil industry, decrepit infrastructure and moribund agriculture.

Yet many questions remain, not the least being: Can anyone trust Khadafy? This is not the first time he has promised to "come in from the cold."

* In 1982, Khadafy met with then French President Francois Mitterrand in Cyprus and promised that Libya would stop funding the Irish Republican Army and cut links with terror groups attacking U.S. military targets in West Germany.

Yet by 1984, the British had established that Libya had, in fact, doubled its support for the IRA. And Libyan-backed groups stepped up their attacks on Americans, killing and wounding a number of U.S. troops in West Germany.

* Khadafy next promised to mend his ways in 1986 after President Ronald Reagan had ordered the bombing of Tripoli. The go-between was Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who told the Americans that Khadafy had pledged his "Arab honor" that he would stop all anti-American terrorist activities.

Two years later came the destruction of Pan Am 103, the single biggest anti-American terror attack before 9/11.

Will this will be "third time lucky" with Khadafy? It is too early to tell.

Some British and Arab sources claim that this time will be different for at least two reasons.

First, the Libyan leader has seen Saddam Hussein's dental examination on TV. The liberation of Iraq has put the fear of god in many Middle Eastern despots.

Second, this time Khadafy's return has been negotiated over more than three years and with great care. The first phase was handled by Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and a personal friend of Khadafy, assisted by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington who has close political ties to the Bush family. The second phase was handled by the British, under Blair's personal supervision.

The argument, therefore, is that we should take Khadafy's latest policy reversal as a strategic change and not a tactical move by a frightened man.

Nevertheless, a strong dose of skepticism is in order. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Khadafy's career would be familiar with his sudden, capricious policy changes.

Soon after he seized power in a military coup in 1969, he flew to Cairo and almost forced the Egypt's Gamal Abdul-Nasser to absorb Libya into Egypt as the first step toward Arab unification. Three years later, however, Khadafy branded Egypt "an enemy of the Arab nation" and called for the murder of its new leader, Anwar Sadat.

Between 1973 and 1993, Khadafy tried to make a union with a variety of other Arab states, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - and ended up supporting terrorist groups against all three.

By 2000, Khadafy had quarreled with almost all Arab leaders and was looking to black Africa for partners. In 2002 he announced that Libya was no longer an Arab nation and should emphasize its "African identity." He played a key role (mostly by signing checks) in creating something called the African Union, and, having bribed enough African leaders, managed to promote himself as its leader. He also announced that any Libyan who married a black African would get a cash gift of $5,000. (Our sources report that fewer than a dozen people have taken advantage of the offer so far.)

The least that one can say is that Khadafy is an unstable maverick who could change policy any time and as he pleases. With an ego the size of Everest, he believes himself to be the world's greatest philosopher. In recent years, he has also taken to writing short stories, and has so far published two collections. He has also directed TV documentaries, written scripts for feature films and designed what he calls " the modern Arab tent." In 1998 he also exhibited a handmade sports car that he said he had designed to drive Ferraris and Porsches out of the market.

To describe Khadafy as a "statesman" is as accurate as calling Mae West a nun.

One thing must be said for the Libyan leader. He regards the Western leaders with the utmost contempt and believes that he can fool them whenever he so desires. Earlier this year, he explained his decision to write a check for $2 billion in compensation for the Lockerbie attack, by referring to "the unquenchable thirst of the West for money."

"They want money?" he asked on television. "We give them money. What is money? Nothing. We will make 10 times more money later by selling them our oil at a higher price."

Nor did he express any remorse for the death of so many innocent people aboard Pan Am 103; he had the temerity to deny that Libya had been involved at all. He claimed that he had agreed to hand over two of his intelligence officers for trial on charges of involvement in the Lockerbie attack not because they were involved but in order to "deprive our enemies of an excuse to continue sanctions against us."

Khadafy is also explaining his latest decision in his typical way.

First he has presented the decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction as one taken by his minions, not himself. "I found your decision courageous," he told his foreign minister, as if in a dictatorship like Libya a minion would have any authority on such matters.

Surely, British and American politicians cannot be so naive as to believe that a man like Khadafy and a system like the one he has created can ever pursue a rational policy.

In his speech in London last month, President Bush went to the heart of the matter when he declared that the problem with the Middle East is the absence of democracy. A totalitarian state such as the one Khadafy has built can never become a true friend of the Western democracies. The potentate who has ordered a halt to a policy of terror and weapons of mass destruction could easily order a resumption anytime he likes.

America and Britain should not allow the prospect of juicy contracts in Libya to divert attention from what President Bush has identified as the vital imperative of democratization. Real change in Libya will come only if political prisoners are released, the censorship of the media ended and the ban on political parties lifted. Libya needs a constitution (it is the only country in the world with none) providing for free elections.

Until then, Khadafy will always be able to revert to his shenanigans and laugh at Bush and Blair as he laughed at Mitterrand and Mubarak in the past.
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