LISBON, Portugal (AP) – When Condoleezza Rice spends a few hours in Libya and shakes hands with Moammar Gadhafi, she will close a nearly three-decade era of bitter animosity between the United States and the North African nation that has sometimes gotten personal.
It’s not every day that a U.S. president calls a foreign leader a “mad dog.”
As the first secretary of state to visit the former pariah, oil-rich country in more than a half-century, Rice’s visit Friday represents a foreign policy success for a Bush administration badly in need of one in its final months.
Yet relations between the countries, once marked by brutal Libyan-linked terrorism, U.S. airstrikes and insults, still will face strains on a number of fronts, ranging from human rights to the final resolution of legal claims from 1980s terror bombings.
Despite Gadhafi’s 2003 decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction, renounce terrorism and compensate victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, not all questions have been settled.
Even as Rice prepared for her landmark face-to-face meeting with Gadhafi, whom former President Ronald Reagan once called the “mad dog of the Middle East,” a fund set up last month to compensate U.S.
and Libyan victims of those bombings remained empty. A leading Libyan reformer, Fathi al-Jhami, whose case has been championed by the Bush administration and by Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, remained in detention, where he has been near continuously since 2002. Rights groups say hundreds of other political prisoners are still being held.
Libya, now an elected member of the U.N. Security Council, has voted with the United States on issues related to Iran’s nuclear program and has helped with the Darfur crisis. But its support on other key issues, notably the Middle East peace process, is far from clear.
Among the biggest question marks is the often unpredictable behavior of Libya’s mercurial supreme leader, the sunglasses-clad Gadhafi, who has cultivated images as both an Arab potentate and African monarch since taking power in a 1969 coup.
U.S. officials say they expect Rice may see Gadhafi in a tent, his favored location for high-level meetings, surrounded by an all-female bodyguard corps, but that plans could change. By all accounts it will be a meeting to remember.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television last year, Gadhafi spoke of Rice in most unusual terms, calling her “Leezza” and suggesting that she actually runs the Arab world with which he has had severe differences in the past.
“I support my darling black African woman,” he said. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders … Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. … I love her very much. I admire her, and I’m proud of her, because she’s a black woman of African origin.”
Rice will be the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953 and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that in that period, “we’ve had a man land on the moon, the Internet, the Berlin Wall fall, and we’ve had 10 U.S. presidents.” “It’s a historic stop,” he said.
Rice has yet to discuss her expectations for her talks with Gadhafi, but U.S. interests include combatting terrorism in North Africa, where al-Qaeda offshoots have launched attacks in Algeria and Morocco, two countries Rice also will visit on her tour this week, and perhaps most importantly settling the claims for the Lockerbie and La Belle bombings.
U.S. officials had hoped that Libya would have deposited hundreds of millions of dollars into the compensation fund by the time Rice arrived. But the State Department said Thursday that the account remained empty.
Some of the families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing have raised vehement objections to Rice meeting with Gadhafi, whom they consider to be unrepentant for the deaths of the 280 people, including 180 Americans, who died in the attack.
The Bush administration has expressed sympathy with the families but said it is time to move ahead with Libya, which is the first, and thus far only, country designated by the State Department to be a “state sponsor of terrorism” to be removed from that list by its own actions.
Rice’s visit comes amid a surge in interest from U.S. companies, particularly in the energy sector, to do business in Libya, where European companies have had much greater access in recent years. Libya’s proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world, close to 39 billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.