If memory serves, it was the distinguished political scientist Sidney Verba who once wryly advised that "one should never write about a country that you haven't flown over." It's a sardonic comment on the tendency for social scientists to pontificate about countries they barely know, and it sprang to mind during the last leg of my trip last week.
The final item on my itinerary was thirty-six hours in Tripoli, Libya. I was invited to give a lecture to its Economic Development Board, following in the footsteps of a number of other recent American visitors, including Frank Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Perle (!). I'd never been to Libya before, and was looking forward to hearing what the audience had to say.
Unfortunately, my plane from London was five hours late (thanks again, British Airways!), so the scheduled lecture never took place. But I did get to meet with several Libyan officials and spent a few hours touring Tripoli itself. Mindful of Verba's warning, however, I can't offer anything like an informed assessment, so what follows are just a few quick and provisional impressions.
First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn't feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service -- which is not to say that they aren't there -- and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco's Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like "2-1/2 Men," shows like "Desperate Housewives," assorted movies, and one of the various "CSI" clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn't interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime. It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafihimself, the government's past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled. Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.
Second, the Libyans with whom I met were uniformly friendly, smart, and well-informed. For example, I had a discussion with one official about the role of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and it was clear that he knew all about it. We had lively conversations about a range of foreign policy issues, and our disagreements were spirited but good-natured. I asked one group what their impressions of Obama were, and they told me that Libyans were initially thrilled by his election (in part because of his African ancestry), but increasingly disappointed since the inauguration. (Hmmm .... sounds like a a few Americans I know). Needless to say, the administration's failure to translate the lofty pledges of the Cairo speech into concrete policy achievements has been especially discouraging.
My own view (even before I visited) is that the improvement of U.S.-Libyan relations as one of the few (only?) success stories in recent U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Twenty-five years ago, Libya and the United States were bitter antagonists: U.S. and Libyan warplanes clashed on several occasions in the Gulf of Sidra, and Libyan agents bombed a discotheque in Germany that was frequented by U.S. soldiers. U.S. aircraft attacked Libya more than once, targeting Qaddafion at least one occasion (and killing his adopted daughter Hannah). Libya was also held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 (though some recent accounts have questioned its culpability) and it had an active WMD development program and received substantial nuclear weapons technology from the illicit A. Q Khan network.
Yet a fortuitous combination of multilateral sanctions, patient diplomacy, and Libyan re-thinking has produced a noticeable detente in recent years. In a rare display of policy continuity, the Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations managed to simultaneously keep the pressure on and keep the door to reconciliation open. (Great Britain played a key role here too, and the effort may have succeeded precisely because Washington remained in the background). This effort paid off in when Libya agreed to dismantle all of its WMD programs in 2003 and to re-engage with the West. (A key part of that deal, by the way, was George W. Bush's decision to explicitly renounce the goal of "regime change," in sharp contrast to his approach to some other countries.)
Libya has also been a valuable ally in the "war on terror" (having had its own problems with Islamic radicals), and Ghaddafi's son Saif reportedly played a key role in persuading a Libyan-based al Qaeda affiliate to renounce terrorism and to denounce Osama bin Laden last year. Overall, the remarkable improvement in U.S.-Libyan relations reminds us that deep political conflicts can sometimes be resolved without recourse to preventive war or "regime change." One hopes that the United States and Libya continue to nurture and build a constructive relationship, and that economic and political reform continues there. (I wouldn't mind seeing more dramatic political reform -- of a different sort -- here too). The United States could use a few more friends in that part of the world.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.