The Benghazi Six -- five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor condemned to death for allegedly spreading HIV among children in a Libyan hospital -- were finally released last month. The media, looking for an explanation that grabs credit for the West, have fixed on Cécilia Sarkozy, wife of the new French president and a late presence in the negotiations. After holding the nurses for eight years, Moammar Gaddafi was supposedly unable to resist Sarkozy's come-hither eyes and allowed her to walk away with his prisoners.
But the real drama is not in Sarkozy's agile grandstanding (the French did get a lucrative arms deal) or in the protracted negotiations involving Bulgaria, the European Commission and Gaddafi's gifted son, Saif al-Islam. Rather, the release points to deep changes in the Libyan regime that began in 2003, when Libya gave up its nuclear program voluntarily, and that continue today with gradual shifts in Libyan governance, its economy and civil society that have been largely ignored by the West.
The real architect of the release was Libya's leader. Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country's role in a changed and changing world.
I say this from experience. In several one-on-one conversations over the past year, Gaddafi repeatedly told me that Libya sought a genuine rapprochement with the United States and that the issues of the Benghazi Six -- along with the still-outstanding final payment from Libya to families of the Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing victims -- would be resolved. And behold: The nurses are free.
In all my public and private conversations with Gaddafi, including a roundtable moderated by David Frost and televised by BBC in March during which Gaddafi responded to unrehearsed questions, Gaddafi acknowledged his history of enmity with the West and did not deny Libya's erstwhile involvement in terrorism. But he spoke of a new chapter for Libya and backed it up with a commitment to societal change. He insisted that in the Libya that comes after him there would be no new Gaddafi but self-governance.
This isn't mere bluster. Gaddafi has taken grave risks in the name of change: offending the Benghazi clans that engineered the nurses' arrest; giving up his nuclear program while rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea use theirs to blackmail the West; holding open conversations over the past year with Western intellectuals, not just progressives such as Robert Putnam of Harvard and me but neocon pundit Francis Fukuyama and the tough New Democrat defense expert Joseph N. Nye. Moreover, in seeking to modify the banking industry and economy, he has rattled the existing elite who benefit from the status quo.
Surprisingly flexible and pragmatic, Gaddafi was once an ardent socialist who now acknowledges private property and capital as sometimes appropriate elements in developing societies. Once an opponent of representative central government, he is wrestling with the need to delegate substantial authority to competent public officials if Libya is to join the global system. Once fearful of outside media, he has permitted satellite dishes throughout his country, and he himself surfs the Internet.
Libya under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government and, in time, to an indigenous mixed constitution favoring direct democracy locally and efficient government centrally.
Such a thought may seem absurd to Western observers who remember only Gaddafi's insurgent past and the heinous terrorist act over Lockerbie. Yet Gaddafi also wrote a direct democratic manifesto ("The Green Book") in the 1970s and convened hundreds of "People's Conferences" where women and men have met regularly for the past 30 years. Have they wielded much actual power? No. Could they be built upon? Yes.
Completely off the radar, without spending a dollar or posting a single soldier, the United States has a potential partner in what could become an emerging Arab democracy smack in the middle of Africa's north coast. This partner possesses vital sulfur-free gas and oil resources, a pristine Mediterranean shoreline, a non-Islamist Muslim population, and intelligence capacities crucial to the war on terrorism. Gaddafi, for example, ardently opposes the al-Qaeda brand of Wahhabist fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia sponsors.
Cynics will disregard all this; but after America's "realist" experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, this may actually turn out to be a recipe for peace and partnership in the unlikeliest of places.
Originally published in the Washington Post.