The Strange Case of Libya

He's a long-serving, unpredictable dictator. He's invaded countries, sponsored terrorism, trained insurgents, and tried to develop nuclear weapons. His recent debut UN speech went 75 minutes over his allotted time, highlighted several conspiracy theories, and called for President Obama to be installed as president for life. He recently said that civil society has no place in his country -- even as a panel headed by his son was preparing a new law legalizing nongovernmental organizations.

Welcome to the world of Libyan leader Muammar el-Gaddafi.

"The last time I saw him, at an Arab summit in Cairo, he arrived in a white limousine surrounded by gun-girls -- his very own Kalashnikov-toting brunettes running beside his car -- and then walked immediately and deliberately towards the conference lavatory, pretending to confuse it with the assembly entrance,"

Robert Fisk wrote in a 2000 profile in The Independent.

Despite his past actions and always intriguing behavior, Gaddafi is now, more or less, a friend of the United States. And though we might not learn much from Gaddafi's speeches or his ideological treatise -- the Green Book that Fisk calls "a distinctly odd collection of immensely boring essays" -- we could learn a lot from Gaddafi's example.

After all, the "Libyan model" holds great promise for other countries currently developing nuclear programs. In 2003, Gaddafi announced that Libya was giving up its nascent weapons of mass destruction and opening up its facilities to international inspections. The announcement came after months of quiet negotiations between Libya and Britain. Libya's nuclear program wasn't exactly an ace in the hole. Tripoli had acquired centrifuges from Islamabad courtesy of AQ Khan, but most of these were still in boxes when inspectors gained access to the program. Still, Gaddafi had been angling for a nuclear weapon for more than three decades, so giving up the program was significant.

It wasn't just nukes. "There will be no more wars, raids, or acts of terrorism," Gaddafi announced. The world would still have to put up with the roguish behavior of the Libyan leader -- but not that of his state.

In return, Libya was welcomed back to the international community. The United States lifted sanctions, unfroze $1 billion in Libyan assets, and established diplomatic relations. Surely if the United States is willing to negotiate in good faith with "Mad Dog" Gaddafi -- the name Ronald Reagan bestowed on the Libyan leader -- then it can find a way to woo Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea's Kim Jong-Il. The key ingredient that seemed to make the Libyan deal work was secrecy. Britain and Libya, which had been at loggerheads over the Lockerbie bombing, were able to hammer out a deal away from the media spotlight. Perhaps Japan, similarly entangled with North Korea over the abductee issue, can play the same mediating role now that the Democratic Party is at the helm in Tokyo.

As for Iran, will Hillary Clinton's recent branding of the regime as "moving toward military dictatorship" really help defuse the situation? Washington is only contributing to the siege mentality in Tehran. Instead, the Obama administration should - gasp! - learn from one of the only foreign policy successes of the Bush administration. "The demise of Libya's nuclear venture offers a template for dealing with Iran," writes Bennett Ramberg in The Guardian.

"It suggests that seriously challenging the nuclear venture will come not from more timid sanctions now, but from measures that encourage the pragmatists who populate the fractious Iranian government to promote normalization."

Encouraging the pragmatists on the nuclear front will help as well in creating more political space for the Iranian opposition. "The United States would have much to gain from a more moderate Iran," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Duran Parsi in "Iran's Fateful Choice."

"Yet Washington's recent actions have pushed the regime even farther to the right. By continuing to press for crippling economic sanctions in an attempt to bully Tehran to cooperate with its nuclear demands, the United States is quickly isolating the country and destroying chances of dialogue."

Gaddafi's renunciation of nuclear weapons hasn't turned him into the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. He still plays a disruptive role in international relations. In February 2009, when he assumed the presidency of the African Union, Gaddafi asked his fellow African leaders to refer to him as the "king of traditional kings of Africa." Gaddafi's one-year tenure was typified by his support of the military coup in Mauritania and his attempt, widely opposed by his peers, to continue on for a second term. Also, rather than spread the benefits more equally among the people, the Libyan leader is still using his country's oil wealth to sustain a large military: He recently negotiated a nearly $2 billion arms deal with Moscow. But irritating fellow African leaders is better than invading their countries, and building up a conventional army is better than becoming Africa's first official member of the nuclear club.

Meanwhile, despite Gaddafi's aversion to civil society, a lot is happening on the ground in Libya. Human Rights Watch recently held the first human rights press conference in the country. "Nothing in my visits to Libya over the last five years could have prepared me for what we saw in December," writes FPIF contributor Sarah Leah Whitson on her visit to the country to participate in the press conference.

"There was open dissent among the ruling elite, and a public struggle to control the lawless security forces. Meeting with the justice minister, we asked why internal security forces continued to disregard the orders of his courts to release 330 men unjustly held. He looked straight into our eyes and calmly pronounced that they were 'corrupt,' an 'institution above the law.' When we asked him, trying to mask our astonishment, what was really happening, he said that Libya was 'going through the pangs of birth; it is a difficult and painful process, but God willing, virtue and truth will prevail.'"

Perhaps this is the most important lesson from the strange case of Libya. Yes, engagement with even unpredictable tyrants can yield important and durable agreements. Yes, it's possible to negotiate countries back from the brink of going nuclear. But skillful diplomacy can also change the political dynamic within a country. If we have to put up with the occasional oddball harangue at the UN in exchange, that's a very small price to pay indeed.

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