Why Gaddafi’s Now a Good Guy

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When I called on Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi in his Bedouin tent last year, he was at pains to explain how he and President Bush were on the same wavelength. In all his years as a bad boy in the eyes of the West, he said, Libya was simply doing what Bush did when he invaded Iraq. “Bush is saying that America is fighting for the triumph of freedom,” Gaddafi said between sips of tea. “When we were supporting liberation movements in the world, we were arguing that it was for the victory of freedom. We both agree. We were fighting for the cause of freedom.”
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At the time, it may have sounded like the typical ramblings of the Libyan leader. But now, a year later, Gaddafi and Bush do apparently see eye to eye. On Monday, Gaddafi accomplished one of history’s great diplomatic turnarounds when Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice announced that the U.S. was restoring full diplomatic relations with Libya and held up the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya as “a model” for others to follow. Rice attributed the ending of the U.S.’s long break in diplomatic relations to Gaddafi’s historic decision in 2003 to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism as well as Libya’s “excellent cooperation in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.”

But as much as the Bush Administration would like to believe it, Gaddafi’s decision to come in from the cold was not simply a response to the war on terror and the U.S.’s toppling of Saddam and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before that. In TIME interviews with key Libyan players, including three with Gaddafi going back before 9/11, it was clear that other important factors were also at work. Foremost among them was the collapse of the Soviet empire, which brought down Gaddafi’s once-powerful friends in capitals like Moscow, Prague and Bucharest. Another important factor was the rise of Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East, which resulted in extremist attacks in Libya and against Gaddafi personally.

Slowly but surely, Gaddafi became appalled by the impotence of his brother Arabs, who failed to come to his aid when the West imposed sanctions and who invited the U.S. into the region to settle the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Once Gaddafi’s Palestinian friends began negotiating with Israel, he began focusing on Libya’s African rather than Arab alliances. In 2001, he hosted the inaugural meeting of the new African Union.

By then, Gaddafi was looking hard for a way out of Libya’s isolation, which was hurting its vital petroleum industry; in fact, U.S. oil companies were lobbying hard from the mid 1990s for a rehabilitation of Libya, in order to be there first in the upgrading of its aging oil infrastructure. As American and international sanctions were taking their toll and the stagnation was slowly killing Gadfhafi’s regime, he offered a major gesture, turning Libyan intelligence agents over for trial in the downing of of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

It wasn’t too long ago when Gaddafi, not Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, was the enemy Washington loved to hate. The U.S. bombed Tripoli 20 years ago last month, in what amounted to an aerial assassination attempt on Gaddafi himself after President Reagan dubbed Gaddafi the “mad dog” of the Middle East. The Tripoli blitz came amid suspected Libyan involvement in a Berlin terrorist attack that killed two American servicemen. Gaddafi’s international isolation only grew two years later, after Libya was accused in the Lockerbie disaster. Two decades later, Saddam is gone from power, facing trial and possible execution for oppressing his own people, while Gaddafi is back in the good graces of the White House.

The Bush Administration has been quick to stress Libya’s comeback as a model that Iran and North Korea should now follow. But it may have been Gaddafi’s rogue pursuit of nuclear weapons, more than anything else, that made Rice’s announcement Monday possible. As Gaddafi sees it, Libya’s nuke program gave him some much-needed leverage in his dealings with Washington. The bargain gave each what they needed: Gaddafi is a pariah no more, and the Bush administration has a success story in the Middle East.

It’s not necessarily the complete success Bush may have had in mind. In citing Gaddafi as a model, Rice has signaled the Administration’s priority for security over the cause of freedom that both Gaddafi and Bush love to talk about. Even though Gaddafi has done little to loosen his dictatorship, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, among other statesmen, have already visited Libya to signal the West’s pleasure. President Bush, or his successor, could be next to visit the leader in his tent.

Gaddafi was right, it turns out, when he concluded our last interview in wonderment. “The world,” he said, “is changing so dramatically.”

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