A Dictator Befriended

Sunday, September 7, 2008

WITH ALL the emphasis it once placed on promoting democracy in the Middle East, it is striking that the Bush administration's most tangible legacy in the region -- outside of Iraq -- may be the restoration of good relations with one of the more toxic Arab authoritarian regimes. On Friday Condoleezza Rice became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya since 1953; she had dinner with Moammar Gaddafi, sponsor of two of the most spectacular acts of terrorism against Americans and a cruel dictator in his own country since 1969.

The visit was the culmination of years of effort by the administration to restore relations, during which Mr. Gaddafi disclosed and gave up a nuclear weapons program, cooperated in the U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda and reached a final settlement on claims by the victims of the 1980s bombings of a U.S. airliner and a Berlin disco. U.S. officials say that it was essential to reward Mr. Gaddafi -- once aptly described by President Ronald Reagan as a "mad dog" -- for his good behavior. They tend to downplay the fact that U.S. oil companies are eager to resume operations in Libya and that senior administration officials such as Vice President Cheney have been pushing their cause since well before the "strategic changes" lauded by Ms. Rice. In fact, a trade and investment deal was on the agenda for her visit.

Not on the public agenda was the beleaguered cause of human rights in Libya. The Gaddafi regime has not altered its domestic repression. The ruler's son Saif, who occasionally has spoken of the need for democratic reforms, mysteriously announced his retirement from politics last month. The country's best-known political prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, remained confined in a hospital during Ms. Rice's visit; he has been jailed or forcibly hospitalized since 2002 for advocating democracy. When questioned by reporters, Ms. Rice said that she would raise the dissident's case, but the secretary passed up the opportunity to make his release -- much less any other liberalization in Libya -- a condition for her historic visit.

Fortunately Mr. Jahmi has a friend in the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who took up his cause several years ago. Mr. Biden recently pointed out that "basic fundamental freedoms such as a rule of law and freedom of speech do not exist inside Libya," and criticized the administration's failure to develop "a comprehensive plan to engage Libyan society." Sounds like a mandate for the next administration.

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