RABAT // Once upon a time, foreign journalists visiting Libya were shown around the ruins of the house of Muammar Qadafi, the Libyan leader, wrecked by US air strikes in 1986. Now fast-forward to last Tuesday, when the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, met Mr Qadafi's son, Mutassim Qadafi, in Washington to talk security co-operation. Senior US and Libyan officials have shuttled across the Atlantic in the past seven months, and the US reopened its embassy in Tripoli, as relations between the countries have warmed after decades in cold storage.
Mr Qadafi's determined grip on power and ambitions for a "United States of Africa" may present headaches for US leaders seeking democratic reform. But his desire to bring the country in from the cold offers new hope for a productive relationship, analysts said. "The Libyans are a sovereign state, and are increasingly relishing the US's recognition of that," said Ronald Bruce St John, a Libya expert and analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank that is part of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
A half-century ago the United States called Libya a friend. A Cold War ally, the country hosted British and US military bases and welcomed foreign oil companies under its pro-western king, Idris I. All of that changed in 1969 when Mr Qadafi, then a 27-year-old army colonel, burst onto the scene, overthrowing Idris and erecting an authoritarian state with himself as "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution".
"We had a very close relationship with the Libyan government and King Idris," said David Mack, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington who served as a US diplomat in Libya from 1969 to 1972. "That changed very abruptly after the revolution." For three decades Mr Qadafi helped train and bankroll a rogues' gallery of militant groups and liberation movements. Some, such as the Palestinian group Black September, carried out terrorist attacks, while rebel leaders such as Liberia's Charles Taylor spread murder and mayhem through corners of the Third World. Libya was also implicated in bombings in Germany and the blowing up of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
These kinds of antics led an exasperated US to cut relations with Libya in 1981, impose economic sanctions and hit the country with air strikes in 1986. By the 1990s, Mr Qadafi began to doubt his approach to world affairs. "He realised that a lot of things he'd been doing had not made Libya a better place for Libyans to live, had not strengthened Libya's role among the community of nations, but had instead isolated Libya," Mr Mack said.
Recently Mr Qadafi has sought to mend relations with the West, starting with secret talks with the United States in 1998. In 2002 Libya paid US$2.7 billion (Dh9.9bn) to the families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing and the following year renounced attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. Mr Qadafi has also abandoned a long-held dream of creating a pan-Arab state to focus on another passion - African unity. In February he was elected to chair the 53-nation African Union for one year.
That may cause problems for US and other western countries seeking to promote democracy on the continent, analysts said. Although he has tried to play peacemaker in Darfur, Mr Qadafi inaugurated his chairmanship of the AU by declaring coups "fine as long as they are staged peacefully", stating that African tribalism trumps democracy and characterising Somali piracy as self-defence. "He now sees Africa as the appropriate stage for him to be a world leader," Mr St John said. "He is very concerned that Libya and the African Union don't do anything that compromises African governments' ability to make decisions in Africa."
Consequently, Mr Qadafi has shown little enthusiasm for US-led counterterrorism operations in the southern fringe of the Sahara desert, or for western mediation in conflicts in Darfur and Chad, Mr St John said. Nor is Libya likely to embark on major democratic reform, Mr St John said, despite a new constitution reportedly being drafted under the direction of Saif al Islam Qadafi, a son of the Libyan leader who is widely considered a reformer and possible political heir.
While the United States calls for democracy and greater respect for human rights, Libyan officials want more thanks for junking their weapons programme. "Washington never considered whether our two countries could forge a new relationship that would positively influence how other proliferators calculate the costs and benefits of parting with their weapons of mass destruction," wrote Ali S. Aujali, Libya's ambassador to Washington, in a letter to The New York Times on April 3. "The United States needs to send a stronger message that Libya has made the right decision."
That could allow the US and Libya to co-operate more on a central goal of the US president, Barack Obama: fighting nuclear proliferation. The United States should "try to revisit with Libyans what transpired in 2003 and how that might be used a model to approach Iran and North Korea," Mr St John said. For now, the countries are building on Libya's gesture to co-operate increasingly on trade and scientific exchange, said Michele Dunne, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
For the first time in decades, "the US is treating Libya in a conventional state-to-state relationship," Mr St John said. "The more the US can do that, the more it can get to the tougher issues." email@example.com